I’ve been a fan of Nashville-based spiritual pop band The Choir for nearly 30 years. I can’t think of a better time to be into them than right now.
I will fully cop to not being entirely objective when it comes to the Choir. I love very few bands the way I love this one – they have been in my personal pantheon for the majority of my life. I try my best to review Choir albums the same way I would review any other band’s work, and I’m never sure if I have succeeded. Their music means so much to me that stepping outside of myself is difficult, if not impossible. When a Choir album hits with me, it hits deeply.
Why is this? Well, I can run down the reasons, but they probably won’t be convincing. I’ve told the story numerous times before, but the band’s 1990 masterpiece Circle Slide changed my life. It was the first music like it I had ever heard – searching and human and yearning and absolutely soul-filling. I have bought Circle Slide five times now – on cassette, on CD, on vinyl, as part of a box set and in a remastered anniversary edition – and I listen to it every few weeks. In nearly three decades, I have not grown tired of it.
And of course I bought everything that came before Circle Slide, and have bought everything after it. I’m not actually sure there’s a catalog of music I enjoy more. The Choir makes music that speaks to my soul, that seems tailor-made just for me. Over the years I have appreciated their honesty, their willingness to let their listeners in on their doubts, their fears and their lives. I almost feel like I know Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty. I’ve listened as their kids were born, and as they grew up. (“It Hurts To Say Goodbye,” from 2014’s fantastic Shadow Weaver, is the latest song about their children, this one about the homes they have built for themselves as adults. It’s remarkable to me that you can trace their lives through song this way.)
The Choir started out in 1983, and amazingly, they’re still going strong. The band is fully independent at this point, existing on the generosity of fans who pre-order their new music up to a year in advance. The continued existence of the Choir is just one of the reasons I love crowdfunding, and I’m more than happy to pony up for this band’s new work. And when I said I can’t think of a better time to be into them than right now, that new work is the reason. Because for the past few years there has been a lot of new Choir material, and there’s no sign that the flood will slow down soon.
I have three – THREE – new Choir-related albums that I have been listening to nearly non-stop for a few weeks now. Together, they paint a strong picture of the current state of the band. In fact, I’d advocate for buying all three (because of course I would) and listening in a row. These three records complement each other marvelously, and together are the best argument I could make for becoming a fan.
You may recall that a couple weeks ago, I reviewed the Choir’s 15th album, Bloodshot, here in this space. You may also recall that I was slightly underwhelmed by it, and you will probably not be surprised to learn that it has grown on me considerably since I scribbled down my initial impressions. Most of what I said initially still stands, but I’ve grown attached to these songs and gained respect for the way they decided to make this album.
Because on first blush, it’s the least Choir-sounding Choir album in a long time – the songs are all straightforward, the production is earthy and Derri Daugherty’s floaty guitar sound is in short supply. But that tone fits the subject matter well – Bloodshot is an honest and raw accounting of drummer Steve Hindalong’s divorce, and its best songs paint a sad portrait of two people unable to make their marriage work, no matter how hard they try. Opener “Bloodshot Eyes” is stunning, a slow burn that, in one of Hindalong’s most incisive lyrics, puts you right there as two tired and bleary people talk through the night, hoping for some kind of understanding that never comes.
About half the songs on Bloodshot are about Hindalong’s divorce, and they’re painful things. As I said before, the decision to keep the darkness out of much of the bright sound of this record (“Bloodshot Eyes” notwithstanding) feels intentional, as if darker music would have made the experience unbearable. Some of these songs are killers, like “Birds, Bewildered” and “House of Blues,” and the finale, “The Time Has Come,” remains the definition of a Choir classic – it’s a gorgeous hymn about forgiveness, for others and for ourselves.
If you remember my previous review, you’ll recall that I’ve always loved the darker half of this record, and I had some issues with the lighter, sillier material. Rockers like “Summer Rain” and “Magic” remain wonderful, and while I will never love “Californians On Ice,” it’s grown on me. I’m especially fond of the saxophone break and the soaring guitar section before the last verse. Similarly, I’ve become more enamored of “The Way You Always Are,” Hindalong’s one vocal turn on this record. It’s a little simplistic, but it’s fun.
Mostly, though, I think Bloodshot works as a whole, an opinion I’ve only recently come to. The lighter songs balance off the heavier ones nicely, and the choice to include a reprise at track eight creates a nice demarcation between the darker material and the more hopeful final third. I still wish the band had landed on some stranger arrangements here and there, but I’ve come to think of the singular sound of this album, so different from any other Choir record, as a strength.
The more straight-ahead rock leanings of Bloodshot provide a beautiful contrast to the second of our three albums, Derri Daugherty’s The Color of Dreams. For years the idea of a full-blown Derri solo record has been an in-joke among Choir fans – he’s basically been promising one for nearly 20 years. Now that it’s here, I can say it was worth every day we waited for it. It’s a gentler, folksier album, as you might expect, and with Hindalong producing, co-writing and playing on every track, it feels like getting a second Choir record weeks after the first one.
But this is a deeply personal album for Daugherty. (Full disclosure: I wrote the bio sheet for this album, and interviewed Daugherty about the songs.) It was created during a difficult time, as Daugherty uprooted his life and moved back to Los Angeles to take care of his ailing father. The elder Daugherty died as the album was nearing completion, and his spirit lives in these songs. Most obviously, there is “Your Chair,” my vote for the prettiest song of 2018. It’s a gorgeous acoustic number, Daugherty recounting some of the, frankly, amazing things his father did during his life: “I’ve been with you to the South Pacific, patrolling the Tokyo Bay, landed a plane with a flashlight in a field in Iowa, when your runaway ’44 Ford rolled into Bakersfield, we weren’t scared, me riding on the sofa and you sitting in your chair…” It’s absolutely lovely.
But the sense of enjoying life while it is here is all over this album. The title track is dedicated to a longtime friend whose wife of 30 years died recently. “Baby Breathe” was written for Daugherty’s daughter, to encourage her to take time and appreciate what she has. Terry Taylor’s wonderful “Between Nashville and L.A.” was written specifically for this record, and it captures Daugherty’s journeys between his two lives. Even “We’ve Got the Moon,” reprised here from Bloodshot in a strummier version, is about grabbing the chance for a more interesting life before that chance is gone.
The Color of Dreams is a more varied album than Bloodshot, Daugherty working in a number of styles. Standout “Unhypnotized” is a propulsive acoustic rocker about trying to see one’s faith clearly. (Hindalong’s lyrics for this one are amazing.) Paul Averitt’s “Saying Goodbye” is a tricky folk song – try to follow its extra beats on first listen – and the slow burn “I Want You to Be” contains all the darkness that you won’t find on the Choir album. The latter song is about the ways we want to control our relationships, both with each other and with God.
The album ends with a delightful cover of Peter Bradley Adams’ “So Are You to Me,” and then six ambient tracks that recast themes from the record in a more expansive instrumental form. The ambient numbers are a nice bonus, and given how little of Daugherty’s watery shoegaze guitar sound made it onto the Choir album and his own effort, it’s nice to hear a good 20 minutes of him playing like only he can. The Color of Dreams is terrific, and together with Bloodshot it provides a more complete story.
But the Choir’s not done yet. The third of their trilogy has just landed in the form of a 25th anniversary package for their Kissers and Killers album, one that looks back and forward. In 1993, after touring Circle Slide, the Choir went independent, creating their loudest and most abrasive effort and then self-releasing it. Kissers and Killers filters the then-burgeoning grunge phenomenon through the Choir’s particular lenses, but it doesn’t sound dated in the slightest. It’s just loud, roaring rock and roll, Steve and Derri turning out some of their most explosive songs. The title track may be the fastest steamroller of a tune they’ve ever written, while pop songs like “Amazing” and “Weather Girl” are given extraordinary energy from the fuzzed-out guitars.
The Choir has remastered the album and pressed it onto vinyl for the first time, but that’s not all. They’ve also completely re-recorded it in a stripped-down acoustic setting, and the results are revelatory. This isn’t just a cheap point-a-mic-at-Derri affair, it’s a full reimagining of Kissers and Killers, shifting tempos and adorning these songs with new arrangements. It transforms these songs from steel wool to silk, and in every case the reinvention works beautifully.
I’m in love with the new version of the title track, with its gently sloping guitar, its swell saxophone parts and its tambourine mirroring the double-time drums of the original. I’m also in love with the new “Weather Girl,” which emphasizes the lovely melody, and the new “Grace,” which frees this very pretty song from the strange sonic landscape it was originally rendered in. Hindalong has grown as a singer considerably since 1993, and he reprises his vocal turn on “Let the Sky Fall,” eclipsing his earlier performance.
Kissers and Killers ends with its best track, the sweet “Love Your Mind,” and I think I may love this new recasting best of all. It’s similar to the version that ended up on De-Plumed back in 2010, but there’s something about this fuller take that brings out the emotion in Daugherty’s voice. The wavering cello, the bells, everything works so well. I can’t stop listening to it. I’ve loved this song for 25 years, and I’ve never loved it more.
So yeah, listening to both versions of Kissers and Killers in this new package will give you those missing elements of the Choir’s sound: the amps-ablaze rock band they can often be, and the nuanced interpreters of their own work that they’ve become. Add that to Bloodshot’s raw, honest pop-rock and The Color of Dreams’ more reflective yet still full and varied sound, and you have everything the Choir does well. I’m beyond grateful to have all three of these new records and to have one of my favorite bands continue to create such soul-stirring music, even after so long.
Next week, things get loud. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.