I’ve been a Choir fan for 20 years.
I know, it’s difficult for me to believe too. I still vividly remember being a gangly 16-year-old misfit, and being drawn to a peculiar-looking album with a picture of a tire swing on the cover. This was Circle Slide, my first Choir album (their sixth), and I can still remember the feeling of sinking into its remarkable textures and grooves, letting it surround me. I’d never heard anything like it, and quite honestly, I still haven’t.
If you’ve never heard of the Choir, well, I can’t blame you. They started their career signed to various tiny Christian labels, and for the past 10 years, they’ve been completely independent, issuing new records on sax player Dan Michaels’ Galaxy 21 Music and playing as few shows as possible. They have made some of the most deeply moving and brilliant music I’ve ever encountered, and very few people have heard it.
So it goes, I guess. I used to be angry about it, but the band isn’t, so I’m not sure why I should be. Every time the Choir plays a concert, or releases an album, my overwhelming emotion is gratitude. I’m so very thankful to have this band in my life. So many others in their position would have hung it up by now, but the Choir soldiers on, still creating music unlike any other I know, and doing it with grace and wonder. The band seems grateful, too, to still be around and playing their songs to however many people buy and appreciate them. There’s no bitterness in what they do, so there’s no need for me to bring any to the table.
But really, there’s no other band like them. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Choir put out a remarkable string of swirly, experimental albums that expressed a dark and yet hopeful spirituality, one that made me, as a young man, think about my own life in ways I never had. Drummer Steve Hindalong, in addition to being some kind of mad percussion genius, is also a lyricist with a rare gift: his songs are specific and detailed, yet universal. He’s able to talk about his faith, yet fill his lyrics with doubt (“The cosmonauts were first in space, to look for God and find no trace…”). He’s able to write love songs full of the imperfection that is every true, long-lasting relationship (“I’m thinking it won’t get any worse, I’m thinking about buying you a hat and a purse, I’m thinking about strangling you, you know that never was more untrue…”).
And then there is Derri Daugherty, the man who gets to sing Hindalong’s words. Daugherty has a clear, high, simply beautiful voice, and while I like how he uses it in his other band, the Americana-style Lost Dogs, he was born to sing Choir songs. Daugherty is one of my favorite guitar players – he works with a sonic palette that would make most guitarists cry. He’s able to create oceans of beautiful noise, provide exactly the right clean-toned accent to every line, and rock like his hair’s on fire when he needs to. He’s simply amazing.
Add to that the off-kilter bass of Tim Chandler, the saxophone and lyricon of Michaels (he’s the only lyricon player I’ve ever seen, and he makes that instrument sing), and, in recent years, the ambient brilliance of Hammock guitarist Marc Byrd, and you have a unique sound, one that often feels like speeding down a dark road in the middle of a dream. The sound has its roots in many things – Daugherty’s obviously a big Robin Guthrie fan – but it is wholly theirs, and for me, instantly recognizable.
We haven’t had a lot of opportunity to hear that sound in the last 10 years. Just two albums, one in 2000 and one in 2005, totaling 80 minutes of material. And Flap Your Wings, the earlier of those records, just wasn’t very good. But somehow, the Choir has found a new burst of inspiration. 2005’s O How the Mighty Have Fallen was one of their very best albums – they found the perfect balance of unearthly atmospherics and down-to-earth melody on that one, and it felt like an arrival point and a rebirth. Also, it rocked like it had something to prove.
Five years later, here’s Burning Like the Midnight Sun, the Choir’s 12th album, and this one is even better. Part of the reason is they’re done proving whatever they had to on Mighty. It’s the difference between working hard to be one of the best bands in the world, and simply being one. Burning is more confident, its steps more certain, and because of that, it goes places no Choir album before it has gone. The last record was a mission statement. This one is mission accomplished.
You can hear it from the first notes of “Midnight Sun,” the scorching first single. The sound is reminiscent of ‘80s Choir albums, Daugherty’s huge and reverbed guitar ringing out a three-note phrase while Hindalong sets the pace. The major difference here is Daugherty has all but given up rhythm guitar, preferring to layer notes and soundscapes atop one another, just like he did in the Chase the Kangaroo days. Byrd pitches in with some dreamy sound paintings, as Daugherty launches into a killer chorus, one that truly sets the tone for latter-day Choir: “I’m not going down behind the mountain, I’m never gonna fade away, I’m burning like the midnight sun…”
If you can listen to this song and not want to hear the rest of the record, I don’t know what to say. It’s the perfect opening track, and as it turns out, it’s just the first half of the best one-two punch this band has delivered since the ‘80s. “That Melancholy Ghost,” at track two, is faster, more intricate, and more amazing. A song about the unpredictable moods of children, it features a super-fast lead guitar line that just knocks me out. Two songs in, and Burning Like the Midnight Sun already owns me.
This is the most confident, assured Choir album in 20 years. As such, the band doesn’t mind naming two songs after band members, and telling funny, personal stories in the lyrics. This is one for themselves, and for longtime fans. “Mr. Chandler” is a little masterpiece, a song about Tim’s run-in with airport security after fixing a typo on his ticket. The lyrics are satisfied with just telling this tale, not giving it extra significance, but the music is a dark and glorious crawl, dripping with import. When Daugherty sings “Mr. Chandler, you’ve got a fraudulent ticket,” it’s surprisingly scary.
“The Legend of Old Man Byrd” is much lighter. Written for Marc Byrd’s 40th birthday, the song’s kind of a cowboy tune, but rendered in the same chiming guitars and elastic bass notes as everything else here. It’s simple and fun, and a nice breather in the middle of what is a surprisingly serious record. It’s especially welcome after the album’s two most sentimental songs, which are also its weakest. The first, “Between Bare Trees” is a pretty little number, about holding on to the one you love before everything crashes down, but it’s never more than pretty, and the wavery vocals in the chorus don’t quite do it for me.
The other is “A Friend So Kind,” written as a eulogy for pianist and string arranger Tom Howard, who died in January. I was worried about this one just from the title, but the music is amazing. The minute-long “Biko”-style intro is suitably haunted, the acoustic guitar is gorgeous, the melody is striking and memorable, and Daugherty sings the hell out of it. The lyrics, though, are a little on the nose. They’re clearly heartfelt, and well-intentioned, but Hindalong usually digs deeper than this: “So now you’ve gone away in a sudden gust of wind, and we’re sadder than hell because we miss you, dear friend.” It’s a very personal song, and its sentiments are straightforward. If you can deal with that, you’ll love it.
In the album’s second half, though, Hindalong is on fire. There are songs on here that contain my favorite Choir lyrics, and the band stepped up, writing some incredible songs around them. The second half of Burning goes more spiritual and more political, and there are no moments of levity. It’s just full-on awesome, and it starts with “I’m Sorry I Laughed,” a dreamy tune about regretting our own weakness. Where “Mr. Chandler” merely told its story, here Hindalong uses an on-stage mishap as a metaphor for our own tendency not to extend grace when we should. (The band also reuses a blaring saxophone lick from Chase the Kangaroo. Yes, I’m that into the band that I noticed this, though Jeff Elbel noticed it first.)
But it’s “The Word Inside the Word” on which Hindalong outdoes himself. Here’s a guy who rarely makes sweeping statements about religion and spirituality, preferring to keep things personal, but he does so here, and it’s brilliant. He references Gandhi, Muhammad, Buddha and Martin Luther King Jr. as men of peace and mercy – not the name-drops you’d expect, but fitting ones – and takes to task those who would use religion as a bludgeon. “The message is not a curse, a weapon of ancient verse, come out of the dark age, turn the light on, I’ve already heard enough to know what I’m certain of, the word inside the word is love…” The song itself is a killer, a three-minute rocker with a superb chorus and some sterling guitar work from Daugherty. The breakdown takes my breath away. “Every child is Heaven’s own, drop the stone…”
“It Should’ve Been Obvious” is similar, a sideways look at those who judge, framed by a dip into history, when Christians owned slaves. He’s right, it should have been obvious, but it apparently wasn’t, and he uses that as a metaphor for our own mistakes now. Hindalong even makes a quick statement about homosexuality: “Yeah, that was me, the self-appointed judge of your own orientation, I studied law at the blind man’s school of cruel indoctrination.”
And then there’s “Invisible,” an absolutely explosive piece of music. Just listen to Daugherty’s nimble, ascending guitar line in the verses, and then marvel as he full-on rocks out on the choruses. The lyrics here describe a fever dream of demons on horses riding to kill us all, and they sport some trademark Hindalong abstractions: “Enticing voices, alluring dark, miraculous joy elixir jar, with wobbly knees and blurry vision, I’ve already made the wrong decision…”
“Say Goodbye to Neverland” closes out both the album and my favorite stretch of Choir songs in two decades, and it’s probably my favorite thing here. Over a mournful piano figure, Daugherty sings Hindalong’s words about innocence dying. The song is chilling and lovely, especially when Byrd starts his magical guitar noise behind it all. Then, just as the piece has built to a brilliant crescendo, everything stops, and Byrd takes over, painting the night sky with formless, glorious sound. A few more piano notes, and a last thought: “Breathe in, breathe out, heart don’t fail, embrace the moment…” And it’s over.
Now, let me be clear. I’m always grateful to hear new Choir material. No matter what they do, I will support them. But even I never thought I’d get to hear a new Choir record this good. Sonically, musically, lyrically, it is their best record in 20 years, the product of a creative high I never thought I’d hear them revel in again. It’s rare that a band celebrates 25 years together, let alone 28, and if they do, most bands start repeating themselves, or falling into a pit they can’t get out of. The Choir, somehow, has avoided both. Burning Like the Midnight Sun breaks new ground, and rides a wave of inspiration so wide and so deep it’s almost hard to believe.
I’ve said this before, but you don’t talk up a band like the Choir to prove how cool you are for knowing a band like this. You do it because to keep music this special to yourself would be criminal. I want you all to hear this, and hopefully love it as much as I do. If I had to pick a favorite band, it would most likely be the Choir, and Burning Like the Midnight Sun stands tall with the best of their work. This band changed my life, and they keep adding to my pile of good things. Thank you, guys. Thank you, thank you.
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I saw the Choir, along with about 20 other bands, play the Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell this year. While I was there, I wrote up my observations, and I’ve posted them as a second column this week. Go here to read it. Short version: the festival was amazing, and I discovered a bunch of new bands to follow. Plus, I got to see Iona and Over the Rhine and Eisley and the Lost Dogs. It was a good time.
See you in line Tuesday morning.