Bishop Allen’s monthly EPs.

There are many reasons that I would be a bad musician, not least among which is the concept of an album. To go into a studio for the first time and spend weeks recording an album and somehow have it turn out well seems more than a little like magic to me. I have spent quality time in the studio with musician friends as they have recorded albums, so I am familiar with the process. And so I am confident that, were I able to produce a first album, I’d never be able to pull off a second one.

This must be how J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee felt after their respective novels. Christ, I can’t believe I pulled that off. There’s no way that would work out a second time. I should quit while I’m ahead.

I keep thinking that there must be a better way to record music, something more fitting with the actual creative process, in all of its complexities.

As it turns out, there is.

* * *

Band PhotoLike many fans, rock group Bishop Allen first came to my attention when they were on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” in 2003. They had just released their first album, Charm School, and Scott Simon was so taken with them that he featured them in a thirteen minute segment. I spent ten of those minutes sitting in the parking lot of Charlottesville’s Integral Yoga, so taken with the music and the interview that I was entirely unwilling to leave my car.

The band’s members were all graduates of Ivy League schools, and all lived in Lynchburg for a time. They made for instantly likable interview subjects, each having an easygoing manner combined with a self-effacing demeanor and obvious intelligence.

The music logically followed their personalities. It was fun, thoughtful, quirky, even goofy. It was, in short, precisely the sort of music that I wished I could make. The half dozen songs played during the broadcast were catchy, and made me feel like I really knew these people. Charm SchoolIt couldn’t have been but three minutes into the interview before I made my mind up to buy the album, which was a serious financial commitment for a guy preparing to spend a year and a half as a poor college student.

I sent ten bucks to the lead singer via PayPal, and a CD arrived in my mailbox shortly thereafter. I listened obsessively for days, then weeks, then months; the expected burnout never happened.

It’s been three years, and I still keep Charm School in regular rotation in iTunes.

* * *
A Bishop Allen Sampler: MP3s

  •       Busted Heart
  •       Things Are What You Make of Them
  •       Corazon
  •       The News From Your Bed
  •       The Monitor
  •       Flight 180
  •       Butterfly Nets
  •       The Same Fire

Beginning in January, Bishop Allen has released an EP each month, and intend to do so for the rest of the year They head into the studio every four weeks, committed to recording four new songs. They take a few weeks for mixing, mastering and duplicating, and then the EP goes on sale for $5, named after the month in which it was recorded. They’re up to June so far, which is slated for release on July 29th. The format seems to give the band both space to experiment and the rigidity of a deadline, those two forces that so often conspire to push people into creating something worthwhile.

I’ve bought every monthly album thus far, which, it occurs to me, means that I have spent $30 on Bishop Allen’s music this year. That’s more than I’ve spent on any artist this century.

Not every song is wonderful. In fact, not every song is good. But most of them are, and a few are magnificent. Just about every EP has a real standout track.

May EP

  • January’s “The Bullet and Big D” is a genuinely moving song about the assassination of President Kennedy from, of all things, the perspective of the bullet, woven into the narrative of a friend’s suicide. It’s catchy, but I feel guilty — and then sad — when I find myself humming it.
  • February’s “Central Booking” is an autobiographical confession about an arrest for disorderly conduct that leads to a tearful handcuffing and a night spent in jail under suicide watch. (NPR made it “Song of the Day” in April.) The melody, often mirrored by the piano, is appropriately guilt-wracked, mixed in with an angry chorus.
  • March’s “The Monitor” addresses, oddly, the ironclad ship famous for its role in The Battle of Hampton Roads in which it went up against the CSS Virginia (formerly known as the CSS Merrimack). It’s a slow song, and isn’t much like Bishop Allen’s usual style, but the bold combination of sound and topic really works well.
  • April’s “Flight 180” combines a rhythm like an elevated heartbeat and muffled vocals to somehow create the sound of an airplane. Guest musician Margaret White plays violin, which features strongly on the track, along with a percussive piano. The sound is unusual sound for a rock band. It’s one of the better examples of how Bishop Allen has grown through these EPs.
  • May’s “Butterfly Nets.” My God, “Butterfly Nets.” If there is any justice in this world — and there’s not — mothers will be singing their children to sleep with this for the next hundred years. That Bishop Allen could go into a studio and produce this — that any band could produce something so totally antithetical to their established sound — is nothing short of astounding. Ukelele, saxophone, xylophone and sweet vocals all fold into a perfect song.

Design time has gone into every EP, so while I’m normally content to simply buy music digitally, I feel compelled to purchase a physical copy of each disc. For an extra buck they let you download MP3s and album artwork immediately, so there’s no need to wait for the EP to arrive in the mail to start listening. Alternately, download-only EPs are available at $4/apiece.

I love the constant flow of new music, and I love the experimentation that makes each month’s batch a surprise. I don’t know that Bishop Allen invented the idea of recording a new EP each month, but I certainly like what they’ve done with it.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

5 replies on “Bishop Allen’s monthly EPs.”

  1. Over the past few years I’ve developed a skepticism about the album as a medium for artistic expression. Single song (or at least just a few songs) recordings were common before producers and higher density media converged. We have all suspected an album of having filler material, and I for one welcome the demise of the uniform length media. Digital dissemination has the potential to put the song back into center stage.

  2. I can’t actually download from any of those links, it seems their server is now down…

  3. The site seems to be working fine now; you’re right, “Butterfly Nets” is incredible. It very well might end up on my Summer Mixtape, once I’ve slept on it for a while.

    As I mentioned the other day, I had been really enjoying “Charm School” for several months before I realized that my friend Kate sings on the record (and used to be in the band, I think). She’s the one singing on “Busted Heart,” which sounded like a total Modest Mouse rip-off when I first heard it, but which has now grown on me quite a bit.

    There’s also a feature film somewhere, “Funny Ha-Ha,” which stars both Kate and Christian from Bishop Allen. Seeing someone you know starring in a narrative film is weird, especially when the film is really unfocused and the characters are inconsistently written, and the really talented naturalistic actors are being asked to play against type. The director’s fault, I’d wager, but I don’t know much about him or the movie. I can’t say I really recommend it. Kate’s own movies, on the other hand, are amazing.

  4. I’m getting a big Modest Mouse feel off of these guys and I’m digging it.

    And, on the concept of an album, I think it’s all about production. Most bands, unless they actually write the album for a whole feel and almost like one long medley more or less, the producer’s the one who turns the madness of 20 or so tracks into a 12 song album.

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