Bishop Reilly Bishop Reilly Album Cover as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothBishop Reilly is a mature offering from a pair of musicians with a lot of experience behind them.  Their music is a conjunction of folk, blues, and rock: a vehicle for stories that connect to the human heart.

Bishop Reilly
Artist: Bishop Reilly
Label: Eastern Records
Time: 12 tracks / 45:00 minutes

When the music is good, it’s always a pleasure to review material written by someone I know – especially when that individual is someone with whom I’ve had the privilege of sharing a stage.  Jeff Bishop, formerly of the 90‘s progressive rock band Earth to Bob, has been an active part of the worship ministry at Fellowship Bible Church in south Jersey for a little over a year.  His humble persona and quiet demeanor belie the technical ability his decades of training have honed.

Bishop Reilly is the product of Jeff’s musical partnership with vocalist Robert Reilly (78 West).  Theirs is a seasoned friendship nearly twenty years old, as they met in the mid-90‘s while working in the original-music club scene – Robert with 78 West and Jeff with Earth to Bob.  As their bands shared stages, Jeff and Robert naturally began to share an increasing mutual respect as well – both as individuals and as musicians.  Well before the ordination of Bishop Reilly, Jeff provided guitar work for several of Robert’s solo projects, an endeavor that began developing them as a creative team.  For the Bishop Reilly project, Robert now fills the role of singer and primary song-writer while Jeff supplies everything from guitars, bass, and background vocals to mandolin, harmonica, arrangements, and drum programming (the album’s liner notes credit drum performance to “El Jefe,” an affectionate fan-originated nickname of Jeff’s from his days with Earth to Bob).

Released October 7th on Eastern Records (Jeff and Robert’s own label), this self-titled album is Bishop Reilly’s first official LP and features a number of guest musicians to flesh out the two-man project: Matt Thomas (Hammond B3, piano, clavinet, glockenspiel, mellotron), Robert C. Welsh (bass, backing vocals), Paul Smith (bass), Chris Carmichael (string arrangements, chamber orchestra, rustic string quartet), Scott Kunkle (backing vocals), and another member of the Fellowship Bible Church worship ministry, Hannah Devlin (backing vocals).  Jeff produced the album, and it was mastered by Mike Tarsia (Mike Tarsia Recording).

The album kicks off with ticking quarter notes on the high-hat and palm-muted acoustic guitar.  “A Million Years Ago” has all the vibes of a Springsteen tune – a windows-rolled-down, sun shining, summer afternoon kind of song that inspires warm recollections of youth.  Matt Thomas’ warbling B3, a steady presence throughout the album, underlays Robert’s nostalgia-fueled lyrics and Jeff’s slide guitar.  This first track serves as a solid introduction to the band, as much of what characterizes Bishop Reilly’s music is present in this tune: down-to-earth lyrics, layers of guitars and voices, tactful bass and drum parts, all ensconced in a blues/folk mantra.

Released on Eastern Records’ YouTube channel two days after the album dropped, “Remember the Way” is effectively Bishop Reilly’s single.  Sweeping, orchestral, and moving, this track has a powerful hook and careful vocal harmonies shared by Robert, Jeff, and Hannah Devlin.  Chris Carmichael’s string arrangements form the lush backdrop for Jeff’s folksy acoustic guitar.  Not unlike “A Million Years Ago,” this track draws something from the past – a confidence that there is safety at home, and that the often unpleasant complexities of life can be undercut by the virtue of our upbringing.

The next track, “Everything is Wrong,” is a bluesy folk tune, both in thematic content as well as instrumentation, though its verse-chorus-bridge structure is more akin to modern pop-rock songs.  The song subtlety shifts from a minor to major tonality between the verses and choruses, rendering Robert’s lament that “everything is wrong and nothing’s working out” more melancholic than sorrowful, though the “trouble on [his] mind and on [his] heart” is a persistent weight with which any heartbroken man or woman can identify.  Jeff provides a strong foundation via steady bass and chugging acoustic guitar presence, which leaves room for his expressive electric guitar parts – a constant for this track.

Huge guitar chords entrance “Best Kept Secret,” a musical hook that later returns during the song’s choruses.  Robert Welsh provides strong bass (as well as backing vocals) that – together with Matt Thomas’ B3 – serves as glue to beautifully unite the percussion and rhythmic elements of the track.  Jeff’s guitar work involves a pair of electric guitars and some easy-to-overlook acoustic guitar bits, which add significantly (if simply) to the song’s instrumentation.  His brief but exclamatory solo at the 2:50-minute mark is characteristically technical and I love the way it meanders into the final chorus at its back end.

Thematically, “Look at Me Look at You” is the heaviest song on Bishop Reilly.  With a whimsical country vibe and Hannah Devlin’s breathy backing vocals, Robert weaves the tale of a couple surviving the loss of a child, acknowledging the heavy but powerful truth that neither would have made it if they “hadn’t had each other there to cling to.”  This track is purposely sparse, largely structured on Jeff’s gorgeous acoustic guitar and supplemented with rustic violin accompaniment, faint piano, hand percussion, and a warm tapestry of voices.

Another song with latent western flavor, “Maybe I Don’t Move You” features Jeff’s work on the harmonica as well as the slide guitar.  Robert Welsh again provides a strong bassline – a backbone for brushwork on the drums, Jeff’s fingerpicking, and Thomas’ keys.  Hannah’s additional vocal parts are especially strong on this piece, supplying the voice of the metaphoric woman in the equation Robert is attempting to solve.  The track fades directly into the next, “It’s Not What You Want,” which features bright mandolin and Matt Thomas’ glockenspiel, another additional flavor.  There’s a bit of a “you work with what you’re given” mentality here, specifically applied to love: you don’t get to pick your partner’s flaws any more than you pick their strengths, Robert says: you pick them, so “let contentment be your crown.”  Jeff solos through the track’s extended outro, another technical yet colorful lead that channels Ross Childress (formerly of Collective Soul) and Steve Morse (Kansas, Dixie Dregs, Flying Colors).

“Factory Hands” is one of my favorite tracks on this album.  This is a song about weekend romance and big promises, shared between a working-class man who has dreams and aspirations and the girl waiting for him to make his big break.  The gentle guitar and shaker that form the intro gradually mount into warm choruses, overlaying Paul Smith’s foundation on the bass.  There’s a steadiness to this song – a non-rushed, laid-back feel, which is partly due to the simple drum parts and hand percussion, and partly to Jeff’s steady guitar, which drones throughout the track, varying slightly but remaining constant.  His guitar solo at the 3:20-minute mark utilizes a Clapton-esque guitar effect, a spacey sound that he continues to use as he riffs through the song’s outro.

A simple folk ballad, “A Mother’s Work” is an honest tribute to the mothers of men – the strong women who “carried all of us” in more ways than just one.  Acoustic guitar, Robert Welsh’s bass, and sharp rimshots support Robert’s ragged voice for the first verse, and are joined by fuller instrumentation for subsequent choruses.  The track comes to a sharp conclusion, leaving Robert’s voice the last thing to be heard: “All the tears that you have cried are enough to fill the ocean up.”

“Venus is Drowning” is the second of only two tracks on the album that don’t fall into a 4/4 meter (the other is “Remember the Way”).  Accompanied by lush B3 presence and tight cohesion between Paul Smith’s bass and the drum parts, Jeff’s steady guitar forms the song’s structure.  Furthermore, his pair of guitar solos on this track are his most complex on the album.  I’d argue “strongest” if there were “weaker” moments to make such a comparison possible, but his guitar work throughout the album is concise, precise, and absolutely gorgeous.  The extended outro, which really begins toward the 4:20-minute mark, becomes a structured cacophony of strings, drum fills, strings, keys, and modulated string squeaks.

“Big Blue Waves” is the shortest track on the album, and is really a loosely structured interlude directly connecting “Venus” to the album’s final track, “Washaway.”  A harmonica, clavinet, and Robert’s meandering vocals overlay the sounds of the ocean and an Englishman broadcasting the nautical forecast, before the entrance of the album’s concluding track, “Washaway.”  Paul Smith again provides grooving bass, Thomas fills the space with keys, and Scott Kunkle adds backing vocals to Robert’s gravelly choruses.  I particularly like the guitar riffs on this powerful final track: both the steady electric guitar part which intros the song and forms a bed for the verses, and also the sparse riffs on the acoustic guitar.  Instead of taking an extended solo on this track, Jeff instead fills the spaces between the huge rock chords with tasteful if minute lead bits.  The music is graduallyreplaced with the gentle sounds of waves and seagulls, washing – as it were – everything away, before the album finally fades into silence.

Bishop Reilly is a strong debut album with plenty of flavors – blues, funk, folk, country, and rock, each with equal representation.  United under Robert Reilly’s songwriter mantra, each of these genres unites to create the Bishop Reilly spirit.  On this mature debut release, Jeff and Robert demonstrate their joint ability to write powerful, album-oriented songs – songs that are both fun to listen to and also deeply meaningful.  There’s plenty of soul-searching here: Robert’s lyrics attempt to rationalize bitter circumstances through self-evaluation and lighthearted storytelling, rendering Bishop Reilly sublimely human.  If you have a taste for the work of Bob Dylan, Bad Company, Gavin DeGraw, Blues Traveler, or any of Ben Harper’s projects, this album will especially appeal to you.


Justin Carlton