It is rather fitting that the first album from indie-rock outfit Bishop Allen was titled Charm School. I can think of no more fitting word for their modest brand of acoustic-electric, piano-laden stylings than charming. Even in their best attempts early on at being an Ivy League version of Modest Mouse, Bishop Allen still found a way to come off as winking to the listener with their erudite brand of lyricism.
After all, these were the guys who made the seeming academic exercise of releasing an EP for every month of the year have some sort of real feeling. The added emotional weight of songs like “The Bullet & Big D,” gave substance to what could have been a novelty project. With 2007’s The Broken String, they showed comfort in their perpetually uplifting message with excellent songs such as “Rain” and “Corazon.” And even if Grrr… in 2009 was forgettable, it certainly was consistent.
That’s more than can be said about Bishop Allen’s latest album, Lights Out. It’s been five years since we’ve seen the Brooklyn outfit and they’ve done some major retooling in the meantime. The band has ditched the cutesy and perhaps frivolous album covers of old for something more stylized. The found photography and distinct block lettering of something like Vampire Weekend’s Contra or fun.’s Some Nights at the very least indicate we are dealing with a new iteration of the group.
Sonically, heavier use of synth and distortion on the guitars fills in the gaps of a once spare and rattling sound. They still bring head-bopping melodies to the table, but with much more sound in support. “Skeleton Key” alone is enough to show the shifts in Bishop Allen’s style. The bass line rolls like never before, they synths are set to video game mode, the snare drum has been loosened, and the whole thing sounds like the soundtrack to a heist movie. This isn’t entirely the Bishop Allen of old.
What is disappointing, though, is the lack of growth elsewhere. The aforementioned “Rain” was a delicate, spirited jaunt, but mostly dealt in aphorisms with lines like, “if it’s ever gonna get any better/it’s gotta get worse for a day.” This was fine for a band still in its formative years—everybody sings about trivialities at first—but this far out a listener is looking for more depth. Even a song titled “Why I Had To Go,” which seems like it might delve into a true personal narrative, appears to be not much more than a set up for repeated use of the line, “I should be leaving.”
From there it only gets worse. “Give It Back” says so very little it reminds me of The Green Album-era Weezer and “Bread Crumbs” uses cringe-inducing metaphor. The lyrics are still at times clever and occasionally acrobatic—at one point angels singing “Gloria” is rhymed with “Astoria”—but pulling on all these verbal loops only reveals a rather plain string of thought.
Bishop Allen may have come to Lights Out with a relatively bold new sound, but they didn’t choose to adventure any further as far as message goes. In fact, it feels like an empty conversation. And while that can still make for an enjoyable listen, it doesn’t guarantee a wholly memorable one. As is sung on “Good Talk,” “let’s talk about the past/let’s talk about the future/ok.” Ok, I’m ready when you are.