Spiritual Pop Overload Part One
The Choir's Never Say Never

So I was having this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day on Thursday. All of my potential news stories fell through, and when I went home for lunch most of my furniture was gone and the rest was packed in boxes and plastic wrap in preparation for Saturday’s move. Not a good day.

And then I opened my mailbox, and found waiting for me an autographed copy of the Choir’s box set, Never Say Never. As Cleese says in the Holy Grail, “It got better.”

I’ve been a Choir fan for more than 10 years. The first album of theirs I heard was 1990’s Circle Slide, and I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said it changed my life. I heard it just as I was rejecting pat religion in search of deeper answers, and just as I was rejecting ’80s metal and trite pop in search of deeper music. Here, from the previously unexplored (by me, anyway) ghetto of Christian music, was an album that had everything I was looking for: real, honest, probing, and often dark spirituality couched in swirling, beautiful, unearthly soundscapes.

Incredibly, Circle Slide has grown with me. With every spin, with every passing year, I relate to it in a different way, and I find new insights hidden within it. I’ve picked up each Choir album I could find since then, and kept up with subsequent releases. While Circle Slide remains their artistic peak, every Choir record is worth owning, and most are worth cherishing. They’ve mellowed nicely with age, and they’re not spiritually searching as much as they used to be, but they remain one of the few bands that continue to have a lasting impact on my life, both personal and artistic.

The Choir has released 12 records, if you count their two live albums. The first nine of those are collected in their entirety on Never Say Never, so it’s an ideal introduction to the band. For a while, the band was including a copy of their latest studio record, Flap Your Wings, with the box set. That deal might still be going on, so after you read this, rush on over to www.thechoir.net and find out.

Never Say Never might be the most lavishly produced cheap box set I own. The Choir put this thing together on their own, and released it on sax player Dan Michaels’ new Galaxy21 Music label. Considering I was paying $60 for eight CDs and a 100-page book, I expected something less attractive. It’s a nice looking set, one that nearly conveys the beauty of the music within.

As for the music itself, well, I just took a trip through all eight CDs, and the flood of emotions is surprising, even for me. This band has existed for 20 years on the fringes, their audience never numbering more than a few thousand. Despite their ability to articulate the universal yearning for truth and grace without preaching, they’ve never managed to escape the Christian realm. I’ve tried every way I know over 10 years to get people to listen to this band. You don’t share a band like the Choir to prove how knowledgeable you are for having heard of them, you share a band like the Choir because it would be unforgivable to keep them to yourself.

The Choir started as Youth Choir in California in the early ’80s, a collaboration between the two guys most associated with the band, guitarist/vocalist Derri Daugherty and drummer Steve Hindalong. Though the lineup has changed considerably through the years, the core group of Daugherty, Hindalong, bassist Tim Chandler and sax player Dan Michaels has emerged as the soul of the band. At their best, you can hear these four distinct musical personalities pushing off of each other, and ending up with a sound like no other band out there.

Never Say Never‘s comprehensive book can give you the often humorous history of the band. I want to talk about the music.

The debut, Voices in Shadows, came out in ’85, and it sounds like it. In fact, the first three are weighted down a bit by their sometimes synthetic production. Shadows actually doesn’t suffer as much as the others, since the songs are relatively synthetic themselves. It’s a surprisingly listenable collection of Christian new-wave cliches, but you can hear Daugherty earning his wings as a singer. His glorious voice is one of the biggest draws of this band.

Shades of Gray, a five-song EP, hit less than a year later, and the difference is remarkable. Most notably, Hindalong began writing the lyrics here, hitting on a fine metaphor with “15 Doors.” The songs grew measurably in depth and scope.

Diamonds and Rain, the first under the Choir name, was another step forward, despite the interference of producer Charlie Peacock. His “Kingston Road” is a plastic speed bump in the middle of the record, which is especially grating considering the leaps Hindalong and Daugherty were taking in their own songwriting. “Render Love” remains a favorite, as does “Black Cloud.” Diamonds and Rain still fell short of the band’s vision, and was the last straw. From then on, they’d produce their own albums in their own Neverland Studio.

If you’ve ever heard an album like 1988’s Chase the Kangaroo, I want to hear about it. The Choir’s sonic palette exploded here, as Daugherty’s guitar took on monolithic, disturbing overtones drenched in reverb. The songs became landscapes, and the lyrics took darker, even murderous twists. This is an album that has the courage to point out the jagged edges without offering simplistic answers, something unheard of in mainstream Christian music, even today. Even the record’s gentler moments (“Sad Face” especially) are wise enough to hold your hand without dragging you anywhere.

Not content to stick with the new sound they’d created, the Choir then made a perfect pop record with Wide-Eyed Wonder in 1989. It’s a paean to children and families, and it manages to be sweet and honest without being trite or obvious. Coming as it does between their two darkest works, Wide-Eyed Wonder is a lovely shaft of soft-focus light that still manages to darken the corners (“Happy Fool,” “Car, Etc.”), all buoyed by the most effervescent guitar-pop in the band’s catalog.

I’ve already mentioned how I feel about their next album, Circle Slide. There’s enough sadness, joy, beauty and pain on this album to last a lifetime or three. Again, there are no easy answers, just a deep, honest search rendered in stunningly powerful words and music. The unquestionable centerpiece is “Merciful Eyes,” which carries in its four minutes a depth most artists don’t achieve even after 20 years. From first note to last, Circle Slide is one of the best records ever made.

With that in mind, where they went next was quite a surprise. Sick of the Christian rock ghetto, they dumped their record label and produced the eight-song Kissers and Killers independently. It’s a surprisingly loud morass of feedback and melody, trading the Choir’s signature clean reverb sound for distortion and power. For all that, Kissers is a pop record at its core, containing a number of indelible melodies (“Weather Girl,” “Gripped”) that shine through the fuzz. Also surprisingly, as the music took a darker, more menacing turn, the lyrics got brighter. Kissers is about love and devotion and how difficult, yet rewarding, those disciplines are.

Never Say Never includes both Kissers and the national release of the same material, called Speckled Bird. The band cleaned up seven of the Kissers songs, recorded five new ones and called it the official follow-up to Circle Slide. The differences in the recordings are pretty negligible, but each record has its own identity, and hence including both makes sense. Speckled Bird adds some musical brightness (“Spring,” “Never More True”) to the mix, ending up with a raucous pop record that balances out nicely. For me, hearing it on CD for the first time was a revelation.

The same goes for Free Flying Soul, the band’s return to dreamy soundscapes. They spent a mere six weeks on this record, and it’s more layered and atmospheric than almost anything else they’ve done. Soul is a culmination of sorts, bringing together the clean-and-reverbed and the distorted-and-grungy sounds, in service of a terrific set of songs. Soul is also the first record that hints at answers lyrically. “The Ocean” is practically a worship song, balanced nicely with “The Chicken,” its dark cousin. The final two songs, “Butterfly” and “The Warbler,” contain Daugherty’s best guitar treatments and Hindalong’s least oblique lyrics. Overall, Soul is the most difficult and challenging record the band has ever released, one that takes time to seep under your skin.

The eighth disc of Never Say Never is called Nevermind the Extras, which is a great joke referencing the line “nevermind the stars” on Chase the Kangaroo. Unlike some box sets that only give you one or two demos as incentives, the Choir has provided over an hour of rare stuff. Here’s what you get:

Two new songs lead it off, the sweet and layered “Follow Me” and the silly “Noon Till Whenever.” Both are worthy inclusions. The new stuff is followed by the first recording they ever did as a band, “It’s So Wonderful.” This and the six early demos that follow put the maturation of the group in sharp relief. You then get an acoustic reading of “Wilderness” from Speckled Bird, originally released on the Browbeat collection.

Then you get the solo material, all of which is intriguing. Hindalong contributes three, including a children’s song (“Mommy’s in the Circus”) and one of the weaker tracks from his solo record, Skinny (“Winnipesaukee”). Dan Michaels’ two pieces from his solo EP Reveal are surprising, especially the swirly title track. Finally, Daugherty checks in with a tune (“All the World to Me”) from his still-incomplete solo album, and it’s gorgeous. Still and all, the Choir works so well together that any solo material suffers in comparison.

The disc is rounded off with a Choir cover of Mark Heard’s “Tip of My Tongue” and a super-cool electronic remix of “Cherry Bomb” from the new album. Nevermind the Extras is a hodgepodge, but a cool one.

And hell, if you’ve read this far, I may as well finish the job.

Last year the Choir released Flap Your Wings, their first album in four years. It’s a mellower collection of pop tunes that plays like a less daring Free Flying Soul. It’s certainly their most traditionally beautiful record, containing lovely acoustic pieces like “Mercy Lives Here” and “Flowing Over Me.” There are still some risks here, especially on the production of “Sunny,” but the prevailing sense is that the Choir has settled into a mellow, contemplative groove. That’s not a bad thing, just a less immediately impressive one.

I also just received the band’s new live album, Live at Cornerstone 2000. It’s a powerhouse recording, even if the band loses its footing every once in a while. (That comes from only playing out once or twice a year.) That these guys can produce the sheer volume and mass of sound that they do on stage and not have it sound like mud is impressive in itself. Their previous live album, Let It Fly, holds up a little better, mostly because it was culled from a number of concerts. Live at Cornerstone is a flawed yet lovely portrait of the Choir, 20 years in, playing their hearts out.

If you’ve sloughed through this whole lengthy review, you probably know what it was like to have been around me for the last 10 years as my love for this band grew. Never Say Never is an unexpected collection, in that I never thought I’d see these recordings get their due. The Choir deserves a set like this, a full-on retrospective of a remarkable career. As I stated before, I didn’t spend 2000 words trying to share them with you just to prove how knowledgeable I am, but because not sharing a band like this would be unforgivable.

I hope it changes your life.

See you in line Tuesday morning.