Bishop Allen El Mocambo, Toronto, ON January 17
Published Jan 20, 2009The 1980s revival that has dominated indie pop while bringing moustaches and synths back in force has lately hit an eddy. The ad hoc, Korg-friendly trend has slowed a little, letting the guitar peek its head back above water; case in point: Bishop Allen. Testing out cuts from forthcoming third LP, Grrr..., and dolling out a selection of stalwarts, the five-piece played a fast, oft-infectious Saturday night El Mo gig.
Since 2003's Charm School, Brooklyn (where else?) combo, Bishop Allen - led by singer/acoustic strummer Justin Rice and lead guitarist Christian Rudder - have delivered a steady stream of concise, catchy pop rock, utilizing clever lyrics and a surfeit of sounds, from horns and strings to xylophones and, yes, keyboards. Throughout, the guitars have stayed up front. Live, Bishop Allen tracks retain on-disc templates, but tweak instrumentation, phrasing, and pace.
At the El Mo, tempo changes had a mostly beneficial effect. Slowed down, "Click, Click, Click," became paradoxically large, utilizing countrified riffs, a chorus of "whoa, whoa," and a soothing melodica. Similarly, new song "The Ancient Commonsense of Things" quickened to become surprisingly danceable. Conversely, though, an up-tempo take on standby, "Empire State" seemed rushed, wasting Rudder's hearty rockabilly guitar line. That was a rare misstep.
For songs that seldom pass the three-minute mark, Bishop Allen selections have an impressive diversity and scope: the playfully tropical guitar turned Spanish nod in "Rooftop Brawl," the anti-country sing-along of "Oklahoma" and "Shanghaied," which uses choral shouts highlighting the band's deceptive range.
Older tracks, especially from 2007's The Broken String occasionally dwarfed recent songs. Historical pop epic, "The Monitor," swept in apropos waves - it's a nautical tale - while "Rain" unleashed a jubilant assault of danceable pop. Natural closer, "Flight 180," towered above its contemporaries, with mallet-led percussion and incremental sonic growth. Despite the reach, esoteric revisits (a riff here, a shout there), Rudder's shimmering guitar, and Rice's considerable charisma and affability kept the show cohesive. Fittingly, the songs' brevity created a tight, succinct set of guitar-heavy pop.