Sir Richard Bishop
n While My Guitar Violently Bleeds, released just a few months ago, Sir Richard Bishop took the shortest route to instrumental virtuosity: repetition of a small number of themes to the point of perfection. Guitar featured three lengthy, self-contained pieces—one psych, one Latin, one noise—that had little in the way of variation or interaction. Bishop’s second 2007 release, and first for Drag City, Polytheistic Fragments, takes a contrasting approach, skipping across a great many styles but doing so in digestible portions, resulting in an eclectic, easy-going album.
Having spend the last 20 years playing guitar for scatterbrained ethno-punks the Sun City Girls, Fragments’ style actually suits him a bit better. His trademark choices—Latin, Indian, American folk, and blues—still comprise the majority of Fragments, but the compartmentalized nature of the compositions means he can worm his hands into the vagaries of each style without having to commit to a Formal Artistic Statement. As a change of pace, Bishop occasionally even—horror!—eschews his guitar all together, opting instead for moody piano chords and grumbling ambience, as on Fragments’ longest track, the 11-minute “Saraswati.”
More importantly, Fragments exhibits a sense of playfulness and exhibitionism that has eluded Bishop in the past. “Cemetery Games” employs clattering percussion, ominous fists of piano, and a tip-toeing fretboard run; it sounds like a four-track demo for an Ed Wood horror flick score. “Canned Goods & Firearms”’ quietly punchy electric guitar wires miniature surf licks over shrunken power chords, like background music for a Dick Dale and Link Wray bobblehead fight. Bishop’s paeans to American primitive music—“Tennessee Porch Swing” and “Free Masonic Guitar”—are refreshingly unburdened, the former offering a brief summer meditation on contentment and the latter dragging its rumble-y open tuning through a thick fog. The Latin-inspired “Elysium Number Five” pits gently rhythmic acoustic chords against an electric tendon, straining and contracting and threatening to snap.
Much of the remainder of Fragments treads on significantly less structured ground, to mostly pleasant effect. “Quiescent Return” and “Ecstasies in the Open Air”—hell if those don’t sound like New Age titles—are as calm and agreeable as anything Bishop has ever made, under any title. The drizzling note-bends of “Hecate’s Dream” are far darker, but even they escape skyward. “Saraswati” is, of course, the centerpiece, but it seems reluctant to own up to the responsibility. A sitar-like drone provides a cushion for Bishop’s ivory wandering, immediately less technique-oriented than his guitar work. Bishop is content to fracture chords and ponder arpeggios. When at the end of the track he finds a bit of excitement in the upper registers it feels less like an exultation and more like a contented shrug of the shoulders, a worthy idea run its course. That, it seems, will do just fine: Polytheistic Fragments is Bishop at his most unburdened and bright, a master styles and sounds before technique.