Formed in 1996, the Lucky Bishops were something of an anomaly in the Britpop era: the quartet of Luke Adams, Rich Murphy, Tom Hughes and Al Strawbridge came not from one of the urban centers of cool Britannia but from rural Dorset in the West Country. Their hook-laden blend of power-pop and neo-psychedelia paid close attention to the unfashionable concept of musicianship and showed an unfashionable range of influences that looked beyond the often homogeneous and parochial sounds of the time. And rather than having one frontman, each bandmember, even the drummer, took turns singing lead.
Having signed to Ade Shaw and Nick Saloman’s Woronzow label, the group released its debut album in early 2000. The Lucky Bishops is an eclectic, self-assured record that displays great potential. To some degree, the Bishops’ sound is typical of the period, recycling many Britpop generation influences: “Casanova” has a glam flavor, “I’m Convinced” is Beatlesque, and anthemic tracks like “Stratosphere” have a late-’70s new wave feel (XTC being another reference point). But while showing a strong retro sensibility, the Bishops set themselves apart by using their influences as a creative springboard for a sound decisively their own. Credit the prominent keyboards (especially Hughes’ Hammond), a de-emphasis on guitars and the integration of varied secondary instruments (flute, xylophone, trumpet, violin, cello et al.). Indeed, the Lucky Bishops’ diverse, often slightly eccentric, sound is more adventurous than many of their peers’ and reveals several eccentric inspirations. The bouncy “She’s Gone” gestures toward the Move and the Zombies; an interest in prog rock (think early Yes) comes through in the disciplined attention to shifting keys and time signatures (“Bad Time”); and a penchant for multi-part harmonies makes consistent allusion to the Beach Boys.
Named after the Dorset town where the band lived in a picturesque thatched cottage (until it collapsed), Grimstone is a solid follow-up. It’s less instrumentally diverse than the debut — tighter and more focused — with chart potential in the anthemic “You Come Alive” and the piano-based ballad “In Everything I Saw” (which pays homage to Squeeze). Nevertheless, the band stays on familiar ground, further developing its own quirky dialect within the psych-pop idiom. Retro keyboards remain a crucial ingredient, most memorably on “Strange Times,” which echoes the Nice’s earliest pop-orientation, and “Pigeon,” in the vein of Barrett-era Floyd. With harmonies and horn flourishes, “Napoleon” recalls classic West Coast sunshine pop.
Time changes occur throughout the record, most effectively on the jerky choruses of “Rock Stars.” Guitars figure more prominently on Grimstone and the band rocks harder than before, particularly on the charging “Doppleganger.” A minor difference between Grimstone and the first album is the lyrical content. The upbeat music on the debut belied a spiky attitude; for Grimstone they seem to have mellowed somewhat, notwithstanding songs with titles like “I Hate This Town” and “Life in Hell.”
The aphoristic semantics of the title Unexpect the Expected is enough to induce brainache. The music, thankfully, is a different story. Despite a four-year gap between records, the Lucky Bishops pick up pretty much where Grimstone left off, administering another dose of Southwest Coast psychedelia, bursting with tunes and bustling with manic energy. Unexpect the Expected continues the idiosyncratic ’60s and ’70s pop whimsy: numbers like “The Pilot’s Gone” and “St. Ives” encapsulate the band’s weirdly compelling style as angular hyperactive rhythms vie with the calm simplicity of fluid vocal harmonies. The darker side of early Floyd still resonates on the ominous, monochromatic “Witches,” but the Bishops are at their best in glorious Technicolor. “No Worries” jogs along with a bright, Byrdsy jangle and glammy summertime riffs punctuate “I Must Destroy My Brain” — a shambling anti-conformity sing-along (“before you go insane / you must destroy your brain”) recalling the Kinks and the Small Faces. Opening new avenues, “The Leaves” shows the Bishops can rock even in standard, uncomplicated time signatures, while “Cake and the Crumbs” incorporates subtle tango rhythms and hints of bossa nova. Also in a Latin vein, the oddball “Guía de Conversación” (“Conversation Guide”) introduces George Formby to Mungo Jerry, with a little Hawaiian-style twang; the lyrics, in Spanish, offer a selection of highly useful phrasebook chestnuts such as “no me gusta este color” (“I don’t like this color”), “me gusta este cenicero” (“I like this ashtray”) and “he sido víctima de una estafa” (“I have been the victim of a scam”).