In three days, I get to see the Choir play my hometown.
There are bands I like. There are bands I love. And then there’s the Choir. My relationship with the Choir goes so far beyond words like “love” that I can barely describe it. I’ve grown up with them, their music has scored virtually all of the important moments in my life. They’re like old friends I’ve known forever, and every few years, they send me a letter telling me about their lives and what they’ve been thinking about.
The Choir has helped shape my outlook on life like few bands. The first album of theirs I heard was 1990’s stunning Circle Slide, a record about doubt and love and mercy wrapped up in the greatest dark, swirly, ambient, reverbed pop music I’d ever heard. The Choir caught me on my way out of the church, and guided me into a more complex and nuanced spiritual place. They taught me that it’s all right to feel confused and doubtful, that there’s something funny about a lot of sad things, and that there’s something wonderful about love.
I recently took a trip back through the Choir’s 12-record catalog, and I came to the conclusion that there isn’t another artist out there with a body of work I love as much as this one. It’s not the finest music I’ve ever heard, and they’re not the best band in the world. But they are my favorite band, perhaps the one that means the most to me. I’m not sure anyone else hears what I hear in them, and I don’t know if that makes me too biased to properly assess their music or its place in the landscape.
I can’t care about that, though. I can only tell you what I hear, and how it affects me. And the Choir affects me like few other bands.
When I was a teenager, the Choir was some mythic outfit on the far side of the country, releasing albums without warning, and only to the one Christian bookstore near my house. When Choir albums magically showed up on the shelves there, it was like my birthday. Nowadays, it’s a really good time to be a Choir fan. Not only have they cultivated an online community, complete with plenty of advance notice of an impending release, but they’re in a particularly creative period now. Their last new album, 2010’s Burning Like the Midnight Sun, was their best in 20 years, and since then, the band has released an acoustic project called De-plumed, and guitarist/singer Derri Daugherty completed an ambient solo disc entitled Clouds Echo in Blue.
And now they’re back again, with album 13, The Loudest Sound Ever Heard. Three Choir albums in three years is unheard of, a gift to fans like me who can’t get enough of this band. But the album itself is, sadly, an indication that they need to slow down, take stock, and craft their next one a little more carefully. Loudest Sound isn’t a bad album by any means – I’ve been listening to it non-stop since it arrived in my mailbox, and it’s gaining ground with each play. But it lacks the punch of their last couple, and it sounds relatively uninspired to these ears.
Of course, a weaker Choir album still gets to me like little else. Whatever this album’s demerits, it still has the voice and guitar of Daugherty, the drums and words of Steve Hindalong, and the bizarre, off-kilter, beautiful way these guys make records. This one’s a little more smoothed-out and serious-minded than they’ve been in a while – bass god Tim Chandler is more restrained than usual – but it’s still delightfully weird in places.
And Hindalong has stepped up with his best set of lyrics in some time. Loudest Sound is a hopeful record full of wonder, and Hindalong’s words this time encapsulate a lot of what the Choir’s been about. The world is a difficult and painful place, but also a heartbreakingly beautiful one. The loudest sound of the title is initially the eruption of Krakatoa, referenced in “I’m Learning to Fly,” but turns out to be the heartbeat of a true friend, as explained in “Melodious.” That, in a nutshell, is the Choir – life is unexpected and dangerous, and we all need someone to hold on to. There’s still something wonderful about love.
So what is it about this record that isn’t knocking me out? I think some of the songs could have used more work. The opening track, “Strange Girl,” is one of the weaker ones, a mid-tempo yawner that doesn’t go much of anywhere. I do love Christine Glass Byrd’s countermelodies – her voice meshes with Daugherty’s beautifully – and I love that sax man Dan Michaels has such a prominent place on this tune, and elsewhere on Loudest Sound. The song just doesn’t do much for me.
Ditto “Cross That River,” this album’s epic. It’s six and a half minutes long, and it jogs in place for most of that time. The band is really proud of this one, and I’m not sure why. The lyric is splendid, but the two-chord music stays earthbound, despite Marc Byrd’s best efforts on the dreamy ambient guitar. (It’s one of only three songs the Hammock guitar wizard is on this time around.) This tune should put me in a trance, but it doesn’t. It’s grown on me considerably since I first heard it, but I still want more from the crescendo and the finale. There’s an energy missing from this song (and this record) that was in full force on Midnight Sun, just two years ago.
The rest of the first half is much more interesting. The aforementioned “I’m Learning to Fly” is this record’s finest pop song, starting off with that trademark Derri Daugherty chiming guitar, and building to a catchy chorus: “I’m living to love in a dying world, I’m learning to fly…” “Laughter of Heaven” is classic Choir, Daugherty’s clean guitar cutting through the sky. Hindalong’s on a journey here: “Embrace the mystery, unlearn, unknow, pray for serenity, you’re not in control, go higher, go deeper, surrender, let go, the laughter of heaven echoes in your soul…” This is just a great, great song.
“O How” keeps the streak going. It’s a lovely piece about the sadness that comes with being a parent, and its pretty melody is set against a cloud of otherworldly, beautiful noise. Daugherty weaves magic on this one – he’s all alone, and he shows he can bring the ambient guitar wonder just as well as Byrd. I quite like “The Forest,” too, after a few listens – it’s a simple, optimistic rock song that catches hold. Chandler’s at his best here, zipping all over the place, and rarely playing the note you’d expect him to.
The next three songs are all slowly growing on me. “Takin’ the Universe In” is a slow gallop with Michaels’ sax providing the bedrock, and Hindalong absolutely crushing his drums. “Melodious” is the acoustic ballad this time out, and it’s nice – some swell cello by Matt Slocum, some well-placed chimes, a fun lyric about Chandler. And “A World Away” features Hindalong’s best lyric here: “I’m a world away from enlightened, more than a stone’s throw from the truth, I’m a sad far cry from a man who never lies, but I’ll hold the lantern high for you…” It’s a very pretty tune, with some soaring lead guitar.
I’ve just realized that I haven’t said anything bad about these three songs, and listening to them again now, I’m not sure why I felt they didn’t work. I think my issue with this album is the lack of youthful energy that was so prevalent on their last couple of efforts. This is a mature, streamlined Choir album, mainly mid-tempo pieces with weighty lyrics, and all in a row like this, the effect is initially underwhelming. It’s the first Choir album in a long time that I haven’t loved immediately – it’s a more contemplative work that takes time.
And I like the closing track, “After All.” Those who have Clouds Echo in Blue will recognize it – it’s “My Imaginary Friend” with newly-minted lyrics and vocals by Daugherty and Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer. Nash fits in quite well here, and the song is a lovely bit of ambience. “Are we mere specks of dust floating through the Milky Way? Are we here to learn to love? I think that’s true anyway…”
Had I written this review a week ago, it would have been far harsher, and would have included words like “mediocre” and “disappointing.” I’m glad I waited. The Loudest Sound Ever Heard is the first Choir album that’s taken its time to sink in, and while I still don’t think it’s perfect, or as good as they’ve been recently, I’m glad to have it. I will admit that I have given this record more chances than I would have if the words “The Choir” were not on the cover, but as I said above, this band and I go way back. And if you can’t extend grace to your friends, what kind of person are you?
That said, I want to love this, and I don’t. Not yet. As much as I have enjoyed hearing from these guys so often in the past few years, I think they need to take more time with their next effort, and make it something special. Even though The Loudest Sound Ever Heard isn’t my favorite of their records, the Choir is still my favorite band, and while there are glimmers of wonder here, I want my Choir records to shine to the heavens. This one doesn’t quite get there, but it’s still a Choir album, and I’m grateful to have heard it. And I’m grateful for the 12 before it, and the years of joy this band has brought me. It’s been a fine, fun time.
Check them out here.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.