Straight Outta Cambridge

The Gospel of Bishop Allen.

Bishop Allen, named for the street Justin Rice and Christian Rudder lived on in Cambridge, Mass., plays rock that is wicked, wise and wonderfully flippant--which is exactly what you might expect from a couple of Harvard boys who enjoy throwing furniture off their roof just to watch it shatter into a million pieces.

"It's pretty fun," said guitarist Christian Rudder. "There was kind of an empty parking lot/junk yard behind our house in Cambridge. It started with ice, because it just disappears, but you can't be as impulsive with ice, 'cause you have to freeze it beforehand."

On Charm School (2003), Bishop Allen's self-recorded, self-produced, and self-released record, impulsiveness is traded for carefully crafted songs with simple boom-smack drum tracks, sweetly strummed guitar melodies and lyrics like "I can't do this, I can't do that, I can't believe I got so fat." The songs are adorable tales of apathy and woe, with an optimistic twist--kind of like Modest Mouse in kindergarten.

"When the light shines down on misery it can only make things worse," sings songwriter and guitarist Justin Rice on "Quarter to Three"; Bishop Allen's songs gleam with morbid glee. On "Little Black Ache," Rice sings, "I've only got one lonely thing that's gonna see me through, I got my little black ache."

"I do feel like a lot of the times, (I'm) writing about the things I experience everyday, just what it's like to be wandering around in the city, or feeling lost in your own life and trying to make the best of bad situations," said Rice.

"Eve of Destruction" is apocalyptic near-hip-hop with lines like, "And if this moment is gone in a flash, and my hand in yours becomes ash in ash," and a catchy chorus that goes, "I'm down with you, even on the day of destruction." But the music's so upbeat and so friendly you can't help but "have a dance, yeah a dance, on the head of a pin."

It's this realism contrasted with simplistic rock rhythms and melodies that make Bishop Allen more than your average smartass indie-pop band from back East. Each song has an aphoristic quip or refrain that gets into your head and doesn't ever leave, because the truth, as they say, is all ye need to know.

On "Things Are What You Make of Them," Rice sings, "I met up with my common sense and I knew her by the rose in her hair. She said, 'Son, if you don't make a noise, God will never know you're there.'"

"We try to keep the songs crisp and concise," said Rudder, "I don't like it to be too cluttered."

Charm School was recorded by Rudder and Rice in their various apartments over the years, in Cambridge, Lynchburg, Va., and Brooklyn, N.Y. The women pictured on the CD joined the band when the record was near completion, but they both left the band not long after the record came out. These days, Bishop Allen is Rudder, Rice, drummer Jack Woodhull and bassist Christian Owens, both longtime friends of Rudder and Rice.

"So now it's four really close friends," said Rudder, and that can only make Bishop Allen's music sound more like what you'd want to hear as you gleefully throw furniture off the roof: Music coated in the give and take of what life throws at you and the good friendships that get you through it all. It's music that may sound a little like this: "We were throwing furniture off the roof, we watched it shatter on the ground below, singing la la la la la la la la la la."

So when the sunny side of the street is full of trash and glass shards and pieces of broken furniture, Bishop Allen would like you to remember: "Things are what you make of them, baby."

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