After releasing one EP each month for all of 2006, Brooklyn’s Bishop Allen pull together (most of) the best, improve upon (most of) the rest, and add a few (mostly) great new numbers for The Broken String. Inspired by a found piano, Bishop Allen’s central duo of Justin Rice and Christian Rudder issued a four-song EP every month (with the exception of the thirteen-song live August EP – QRO live review), as their pseudo-follow-up to their 2003 debut LP, Charm School. The Broken String largely cherry-picks from among those EP’s, giving it a bit of a jumbled feel, but the band’s interesting, eclectic, eccentric, acoustic indie sound creates an unbroken string throughout the entire record.
Of all the songs taken from the EP’s, The Broken String starts off with probably the weakest of the choices made, “The Monitor” – and totally improves upon it. This number about a Civil War battleship is fleshed out, with the too-twee elements removed. That is something of a common occurrence on String, with even better results. “Click, Click, Click, Click” really grows into its own, catchy, yet flowing well with its high tone (and also concerns an odd subject – dropping in on a stranger’s wedding to get out of the rain, being photographed with the party, and thus being in a photo that will be forever part of their lives). “Like Castanets” also shifts away from being overly cute, though instead of going for catchy, this Spanish-inflected number goes for pure sweetness.
But the two songs most bettered from their EP deliveries are later tracks “Corazon” and “The News From Your Bed”, both of which are not only fuller, but, indeed, really just flat-out better produced. The story of Bishop Allen’s new piano is covered in “Corazon”, almost like a ‘song about a girl’, with a nice bass line and great growth, feeling wry, but not overdone. Broken String finisher “The News From Your Bed”, an actual ‘song about a girl’ (albeit who doesn’t leave her house), has a fun, 70’s piano-pop vibe to it.
If only there were more pieces on The Broken String such as these. “Chinatown Bus” has the quirky concept (the infamously cheap, but dangerous, Fung-Wa ‘Chinatown, New York-to-Chinatown, Boston’ bus line), and it flows nicely, but is kind of one-note. The vocals of Darbie Nowatka on “Butterfly Nets” are very cute, yet not crushingly so, but the song doesn’t quite amaze, and while the banjos of the following sad-folk “Shrinking Violet” makes it a nice change, the song is again, good-but-not-great. And then there is “Flight 180”, the only piece to really decline from its EP, as the song went from orchestral & impressive to small & quiet (reminiscent of Bright Eyes’ “At the Bottom of Everything”).
The Broken String does feature some new material, and it’s some of the record’s best. While the new, darkly ironic piece “Choose Again” isn’t as clever as it wants to be, the preceding new number, “Middle Management”, really is. It gets that way by going up-tempo and upbeat in its take on work, its rockin’ guitar different than the rest of the album. And the new “Rain” is rhythmic with its catchiness; a great beat making a great song.
What could have been a grab bag of a record for Bishop Allen is held together by strong production – and strong construction. Rice and Rudder are able to build interesting songs throughout The Broken String, from different angles, yet not necessarily of differing quality. They’ve not let their odd topics overcome their work, as they’ve mostly polished down the overly twee aspects of their pieces, mostly picked wisely from the EP’s, and mostly added great new numbers. And that’s more than most can say.