Red Cab to Manhattan

Stephen Bishop

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Red Cab to Manhattan Review

by Nathan Southern

Originally issued in 1980, Red Cab to Manhattan was singer/songwriter Stephen Bishop's fascinating follow-up to the smash debut Careless (1977) and his uneven sophomore release, Bish (1978). Bishop wrote and recorded Red Cab during his bicoastal romantic involvement with actress Karen Allen and not long before their reportedly crushing split. Listening to the album, you can hear both sides of the equation: it alternates between playful pop tunes that sound like they were authored during the relationship's happy times, characterized by a prankish, occasionally raunchy sense of humor (as in the opener, "The Big House," and the bizarre, irreverent "Sex Kittens Go to College"), and poignant selections such as "The Story of a Boy in Love," about a distraught young man who leaps off a building to his death after a breakup. At one point -- a refrain on the track "Little Moon" -- Bishop even works Allen's name into the lyrics, bleating out "Karen" repeatedly. The emotionally schizoid nature of the recording is its Achilles' heel. However, if taken on a case-by-case basis, the individual songs do demonstrate much greater compositional maturity than the selections on Bish. From the beginning of his career, Bishop always demonstrated a tendency to add oddball musical flourishes to conventional pop songs, but on Bish, the attempts at innovation often sounded klutzy and tacky -- as when he opened "What Love Can Do" with a nutty Wizard of Oz sound-alike chorus. The artist sustains an offbeat vibe on Red Cab as well, but here, the frequent eccentricities feel fluidly integrated into the overall song structures. This is particularly true of the outstanding title track -- which begins as a wistful, dreamlike ballad with a couple of Brian Wilson-esque bridges, and then segues effortlessly into a mellifluous trombone solo by Bishop. Also memorable is the album's closer, "My Clarinet," a kind of tragicomic ode to a dead-end life, performed on solo guitar. It's tinged with melancholic irony and some of Bishop's most clever lyrics ("I feel like the Z in xylophone, tonight"). Unfortunately, despite Red Cab's many assets, it marked the beginning of a lengthy dry spell for the musician. Because his next effort, 1986's Sleeping with Girls, never received North American distribution, fans had to wait until 1989's Bowling in Paris to enjoy another new Bishop release.

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