On “Dimmer,” the first track on Bishop Allen’s latest album, Justin Rice sings about starting slow out of the gates: “I would choose the darkest horse/That’s the horse I’d ride.” “We’d start the race behind,” he continues, although before long the audience would “take their feet and toss their hats/And yell out in surprise.” The underdog motif fits the band. The Brooklyn outfit is not yet as well-known as one would expect of a band that had a cameo in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and a song featured in a Sony commercial, but it’s quietly built itself into an indie juggernaut. Beginning with its 2006 EP project—it wrote, recorded, and shipped a CD every month of the year—the band has displayed an unrivaled work ethic. Band principals Rice and Christian Rudder, along with a rotating cast of players, tour regularly and continue to spend many, many hours honing their craft. Between Bishop Allen’s rough-but-endearing 2003 debut Charm School and Grrr…, its second album on Austin indie Dead Oceans, their playing has grown tighter, and the new pieces ring with strings, horns, and percussion instruments. But it’s the album’s lyrics, largely written by Rice, that seem particularly refined. Whereas their verses once mainly concerned twentysomething angst, Grrr…’s songs are the stuff of genre novels. The narrator of “Shanghaeid” is beaten up and forced into conscription as a sailor; “Cue the Elephants” concerns a fanciful, woodsy adventure; and “Rooftop Brawl” details a man’s self-mutilation, which provokes a crowd of onlookers. “Oklahoma,” “True or False,” and “South China Moon” are stories about relationships, mostly of the dysfunctional or hopeless variety. It’s heady, textured stuff, and in some cases the lyrics take many listens to unravel. This can be a good thing, as on “South China Moon,” during which the guys call and respond: “South China moon/How’d you get in my room?/Little pieces of you/So bright.” Other times, however, the poetry is simply annoying and inscrutable, like on “Cue the Elephants”: “The morning belonged to the grapefruit/Ripe in the gold Roman sun…” Still, the album is more even than the group’s last work, 2007’s The Broken String, a mix of overly sincere songs such as “Chinatown Bus” and “Like Castanets,” and hook-filled gems including “Middle Management” and “The News From Your Bed.” Nothing on Grrr… is as immediately memorable as the best moments of The Broken String, but, like the band itself, it grows on you over time. “Am I dimmer every day?/Am I just a little glimmer?” Rice sings on “Dimmer.” With an ever-expanding bag of tricks and a constant sharpening of their skills, it would seem that, at least as far as Bishop Allen is concerned, the answer is decidedly “no.”
Bishop Allen performs Friday, March 13, at the Black Cat.