This week I get to write about the new Choir album.
If you’ve been reading this column for a while, you know how important a sentence like that is to me. If I’m asked to pick a favorite band, more often than not I will answer with the Choir. I’ve heard many bands I might consider better, but none that moves me and affects me as much as they do. I sometimes feel like they exist just for me, like their particular alchemy was painstakingly crafted to flip just about all of my switches. There are very few Choir songs that don’t do it for me, and very few Choir albums that don’t make me ridiculously glad to be alive.
I first heard the Choir in 1990, when I was a sophomore in high school. I’ve told this story before, but I was a young, angry man, on the verge of ditching so many things that have become central and important to me. I bought the band’s fifth album, Circle Slide, on a whim – the cover art just mesmerized me. That album changed my life. I’ve carried Circle Slide with me for almost 25 years, and each time I listen, I’m filled up. I find new things to love, new reasons to consider it one of my favorite records, full stop.
I’m realizing that the Choir’s been with me for more than half my life now. They’re old friends, and I’m not just saying that because the guys in the band are in their mid-50s now. The Choir’s music is so personal, so honest, so open that I feel invited into their lives just by listening. I’ve heard songs about their kids as infants, toddlers, high schoolers and now, on this new one, adults with their own separate lives. I’ve listened as they told me about their loves and losses, their guilts and fears, their moments of doubt and their moments of true, abiding faith.
In many ways, each new Choir album is a gift, and in recent years, it’s become easier to take it for granted. Ten years ago, we didn’t know if we would ever get a new Choir album. Their late-career renaissance began in 2005 with O How the Mighty Have Fallen, an out-of-nowhere surprise that was their best work in ages. These days new Choir albums happen regularly, and it’s easy to get complacent. So when they dropped The Loudest Sound Ever Heard two years ago, and it turned out to be a comparatively lackluster affair, I wasn’t worried. They’d bounced back before, and they could do it again.
When I stopped to think about it, I realized that was a wonderful notion. The Choir has been such a steady, going concern that I never once imagined that Loudest Sound could be their last. That might be the first time since the ‘90s that I’ve been sure that the band would not fade away, that new music would be a certainty. There have been five Choir albums since 2005, plus a Christmas EP and a solo project from Derri Daugherty. It’s been a steady stream of quality stuff, and it’s clear at this point that the band isn’t going anywhere.
Still, only a few thousand people have ever heard of them, which is why I’m glad (once again) that Kickstarter exists. Last year, The Choir asked for $25,000 to create a new studio album and live record. They got $54,268. They also got a direct line to the hundreds of people, myself included, who would be most excited by the prospect of something new from the band.
This week, all 791 of us received a download link for The Choir’s 14th album, Shadow Weaver. I’d heard rumblings that this one was something special, and though it took a few listens to sink in, I’m happy to report that those rumblings were right. Shadow Weaver is an exceptional Choir record, one of the best of their late-career renaissance. I’ve heard it eight times now, and with each play, it grows in stature. At 13 songs and 56 minutes, it’s their longest effort, and though it sags a bit in the middle and stumbles a little near the end, it’s one of the strongest front-to-back experiences they’ve delivered.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Shadow Weaver is the sense of coherence that winds through all of it. This record was made with the best of all Choir lineups – the Core Four of Daugherty, drummer Steve Hindalong, bassist Tim Chandler and sax player Dan Michaels, joined by ambient guitarist Marc Byrd (of Hammock) and his wife Christy on ethereal backing vocals. Gone is the sense of freewheeling diversity that marked Burning Like the Midnight Sun, but in its place is a thrilling consistency of sound. This is the Choir, sounding like no one but themselves.
That means thick, watery guitars are the order of the day, and man, this album offers a feast of them. Byrd seems to be on every track, filling the empty spaces with oceans of lovely reverbed noise. Daugherty is a master of texture, whether piling on the pummeling chords or adding clean flourishes. He pulls out the acoustic only once here, on the sweeping ballad “We All Know.” Otherwise, it’s all big, powerful electric guitars, played like only Daugherty can. Behind all that, Chandler remains one of the most fascinating and unorthodox bass players alive, his flights of fancy anchored by Hindalong’s rock-solid work. And this album finds more space for Michaels, integrating his sax and lyricon into the sound like their best work does.
What I’m getting at is that while the Choir can sometimes feel like the Steve and Derri Show, Shadow Weaver sounds like a band. They’ve cohered, coalesced. Even when the songs aren’t top notch (which is rare), the full-band vibe of this record carries the day. True to its cover art, Shadow Weaver is darker than the band has been in a while, and the fullness and richness of its sound adds immeasurably to that darkness.
I haven’t even talked about the songs yet, so taken am I with the sound. Let me just say that the first six tracks of Shadow Weaver are absolutely flawless. It opens with the sorta-title track, the moody “Good Morning, Shadow Weaver,” and if you’ve ever been a fan of this band, you’ll recognize their stamp immediately. Chiming guitar tones rising out of a cloud of wispy vapor, Daugherty’s high and lovely voice, Christy Byrd’s delicious counterpoint (“Lights on, I say, lights on…”), everything about this song welcomes you in.
The real surprise comes next: the powerhouse “What You Think I Am.” Sporting one of the most menacing grooves the Choir has ever laid down, this tune is four and a half minutes of thunderous awesome. It puts the relatively staid Loudest Sound to shame all by itself. Hindalong’s lyrics roundly reject the tendency to both idolize and demonize people – “I’m no angel, that ain’t me, and what kind of devil do you think I’d be, I’m a good Samaritan and a very, very bad man, I’m a whole lot better and a whole lot worse than what you think I am…” I can’t wait to hear this one live.
“It Hurts to Say Goodbye” is a moody seven-minute stunner that finds Daugherty, Byrd and Michaels weaving around each other like birds in flight. Hindalong and Daugherty are both fathers of adult daughters, and this song is about watching them leave the nest. It’s glorious – The Choir rarely stretches out like this, but you’ll want this particular slow wonder to go on forever.
The pace picks back up with “Get Gone,” the sharpest rocker on the album, and slows back down for “We All Know,” a lovely examination of the ways suffering brings us together. “You know you’re alive when you taste your own blood, open hands to the sky with your face in the mud, we all know how suffering feels…” Daugherty just takes this one into orbit. That opening stretch ends with “Two Clouds Are One,” a 104-second ambient piece that is unabashedly about the aftermath of sex. It’s so pretty you may not realize its intentions at first. Once you do, it’s even prettier. I can’t name another song that captures this particular moment this well.
Things get a little rockier from there, but thankfully, only a little. The next two tracks are middling Choir songs, but they may be among my favorite middling Choir songs. “White Knuckles” actually makes its chorus lyric (“Dancing with a serpent, dancing with a snake”) palatable with its simple-yet-effective melody – the song’s about doubt, about walking on the edge with one eye on safety. “Everybody’s Got a Guru” doesn’t fare quite as well, its search-for-truth platitudes propping up a fairly pedestrian tune. But with Daugherty and Byrd entwining and Christy Byrd singing like an angel, it’s still an enjoyable four minutes.
Ah, but “The Soul of Every Creature Cries Out” is next, and it may be my favorite thing here. It’s certainly the most spiritual, a song of deep yearning: “Into our lungs we drew sweet breath, and the first thing we all knew we were choking, sometimes we laugh in the face of death, but when we cry for mercy, nobody’s joking…” The repeated refrain is haunting, Daugherty laying down a gorgeous minor-key soundscape. This is the beautiful dark spirituality that first drew me to the Choir, and they do it better than just about anyone. “The soul of every creature cries out, the heart of humanity moans, somebody out there won’t leave us alone…” That is how my own spiritual yearning feels to me – somebody out there won’t leave me alone. The song ends with 90 seconds of light and noise that could have gone on for 10 times as long without getting boring.
After that, you’d think a trifle like “Rhythm of the Road” would be a letdown, but this song rocks. I’ve always enjoyed their travelogue tunes, and this one – about a storm causing an oil leak in their van – is more fun and joyous than most. The album’s only true misstep is “The Antithesis of Blue,” which plies its too-simple chord progression for too long without developing it. I don’t actively hate this song – it’s quite nice, if you’re in the mood for it – but it pales in comparison to the rest of this record, and it sits where the climax should be.
But all is well again with the closing track, an extended reprise of “Shadow Weaver” that finds Chandler doing his rubbery-bass thing, Daugherty playing chiming chords and Byrd covering everything in glorious waves of noise. “Good morning, shadow weaver, what have you realized,” Daugherty sings, before the band launches into an extended ambient playout that lasts more than two minutes. It’s beautiful – heart-rendingly, soul-stirringly beautiful – and a tremendous way to end a tremendous record.
And it is, seriously, a tremendous record. Of the latter-day material, I think it’s second only to Midnight Sun. This is the Choir’s 14th album, and I can’t think of very many bands who arrived at their 14th album with this much energy, imagination and conviction. Even if they weren’t my favorite band, the sheer consistency, dynamism and overall power of Shadow Weaver would be worth respecting and celebrating.
But they are my favorite band, so hearing an album this good from them means so much more to me. Every Choir album is a gift, and Shadow Weaver is an especially sweet one. I’ve never quite been able to put into words the depth of feeling that the Choir’s music stirs in me. I won’t be able to do it this time either. For 24 years, they’ve been the band of my dreams, and the fact that they are still creating music that moves me, fills me, takes me places and leaves me with wide-eyed wonder is just… I’m unspeakably grateful.
Shadow Weaver is marvelous, and even if you don’t love the Choir as much as I do, you’ll still enjoy it. But if you do – if this tiny band from Tennessee stirs in you the same things they stir in me – you’ll welcome this album into your life with open arms. I certainly have. Thank you to Steve and Derri and Dan and Tim and Marc for making another record that rewrites my life, gives voice to my inner longing, and fills me with joy. Thank you. In the end, just that. Thank you.
You can buy Shadow Weaver starting April 15 here.
Next week, Aimee Mann and Ted Leo join forces, and Dan Wilson returns. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.