The Broken String
o conjure the hyperliterate, hypertensively familial indie of Bishop Allen, suppose that the Tenenbaums formed a band. It is their inaugural recital. The furniture is cleaned out of the front room to provide for an extensive group and an unwieldy selection of instruments. Acoustics are tested with histrionic, fervid conviction. Soundcheck occurs via an erudite conversation on how to correctly tune a sousaphone. The audience itself is small: only family members too weak or excessively dignified to play the triangle remain to sit and listen.
The songs themselves clamor as vociferously for attention as a twelve-year-old idiot-savant directing his extended family in an unforeseen vision of Hamlet in the family lounge. The room reeks of parental aspirations, filial jealousies, Oedipal rivalries and various inversions. Love songs are kept to a minimum and addressed to mysterious unnamed third parties. Perhaps a foreign language would be nice?
Which is to say that the lazy and unfamilied will pass over this, and the rest of Bishop Allen’s not-insubstantial oeuvre, as kitschy chamber pop appropriate only for sherry-tastings dominated by ironic mustaches—a less muppet-like version of the Polyphonic Spree, perhaps.
But come, let us interrogate this notion of chamber pop. Does a drop of semiosis still adhere therein? What then does it conjure? We must have violins, to be sure. (Check). A minimum of eight musicians will be required, or six and one talented child (Check). A ukelele must be employed with touching innocence (Check). We must play ironically colonial with history, racial sensitivities, cultural appropriations, and dexterity—remember, a true gentleman plays in the parlor only, for the delight of the assembled ladies. (Checking off all the above—see “The Monitor,” “Castanets,” and “Corazon.”)
Yet it would be inaccurate and worse, cheap, to damn The Broken String with such an effete moniker. “Middle Management,” for example, would destroy the reading room, and would thus have to be shot as a montage, still or otherwise, to allow for artistic arrangement of the shattered antique furniture. That “Middle Management” is the exception, and the band’s natural inclination leans more ukelele than cowbell, well… it won’t be everyone’s kettle of fish, though Bishop Allen have done very well in figuring out how to release a killer album that feels like a second debut—they were mighty gangly and still putting on their suits for the ball on the cover of the first record, after all. In 2006 the band self-released an EP of new material every month. Judicious touring has allowed the group to road test their repertoire to assemble only the best for the Debutant’s Afterparty, rerecorded for that certain je ne sais quoi.
Thence, par exemple the baited breath and headrush of “Flight 180,” easing in with an earnest guitar pattern skirted with feedback-smooth overtones, birthing a clouded bassline. It is a damn-near perfect song, an empathic rendition of that unspoiled moment before arriving somewhere familiar—the elegant, illuminated simplicity of life as viewed from above and the limitless potential of seats in the upright position. It is a pithy, poignant short story set to music.
And if the rest of the album doesn’t quite sustain that sense of transported wonder, we should not be surprised. The record is awash in the sort of glass-cased charm and orphaned anxiety evoked by a visit to distant, eccentric relatives, the sort who provide good material for song titles. “The Butterfly Net,” wafted on a ukelele and moist tenor sax solo, sounds like it could be dispersed by an imprudent cough, and that is perhaps the biggest draw of the album—its sheer fragility and unlikeliness, amidst throngs of over-arranged pseudo-chamber indie records. For there’s no one quite so seductively vulnerable as family.