Mighty Good
The Choir Returns With a Winner

I don’t know how to start talking about the new Choir album.

I suppose I can start with just how lucky I feel to be able to write those words in that order – the new Choir album. I started buying music at age 15 or so, and I first heard the Choir at age 16, after a steady diet of Def Leppard and Huey Lewis. I’d never heard anything like it – the deep guitar tones, the angelic voice of Derri Daugherty, the dark spiritual yearning of the lyrics. It was art, and I’d heard art before, but never like this, and never from a band I discovered on my own.

The album was called Circle Slide, and it changed my life. It’s such an amazing piece of work that even now, I listen to it once a month or so, and I’ve never grown tired of it. That’s almost half my life I’ve lived with Circle Slide, and next year it will actually be half my life, and I don’t foresee tossing it aside anytime soon. Every time I listen to it, I find something new to love.

For a long time, I would tell people that the Choir was the best band in the world, when what I really meant was that they’re my favorite band in the world. And you know, they really are. I’ve heard better bands, made up of better musicians who write better songs, but none of them hit me like the Choir does. I am emotionally drawn in to a Choir album like just about nothing else, from anyone else. If this means I’ve lost objectivity and cannot adequately appraise their work, then so be it. I’ll cop to it. I’d rather have one band like this that I love so completely than have perfect, clinical detachment any day of the week.

Even though I like Circle Slide best, nearly every Choir album is beautiful and wonderful in its own way. Chase the Kangaroo (1987) explored the reverb-drenched ambient side of the band, while Wide-Eyed Wonder (1989) is a perfect pop record, all acoustic guitars and lovely melodies. Speckled Bird (1994) kicked open a door that the band has yet to close, cranking up the fuzz factor and loudly rocking, while Free Flying Soul (1996) brought back the swirl, creating a low-budget masterpiece of oddness. The band’s first real stumble since the earliest days was Flap Your Wings (2000), which sported some good songs but floundered on many others. Still, the Choir spirit was there, even in the most straightforward of the tunes on Wings.

Here’s what the Choir is about – love through pain. They’re a religious band, no doubt, but they never preach, they never sermonize, and they never, ever talk at you. Choir songs (written most often by Daugherty and drummer Steve Hindalong) are about struggling with life, and about how faith eases that struggle. They talk with you, they communicate on a very human level, even as they reach for heavenly things. The Choir has never written a song about how much you (yes, YOU) need God, but they have written dozens about how much they need him, how impossible their lives would be without love and grace. I can’t explain it – let me just say that I hate most Christian music, but I have never been put off by the Choir, because they do what any good artist does: they open a window into their world and gently invite you in.

I approach a new Choir album, then, with a mix of joy and trepidation. Will this be the album that tarnishes the whole catalog? Will this be the one that makes me wistfully yearn for the days when the Choir was good, the one that makes me wish that they’d followed through on one of their eight or so retirements? How long can they extend this streak? How many great records can they do? It didn’t help that they chose O How the Mighty Have Fallen as the title of this new one. I mean, talk about opening yourself up. I said this before, but if it turned out that the album sucked, I’d only have to repeat the title phrase and my review would be complete.

And then I saw the cover. Mighty has, easily, the most beautiful packaging of any Choir album since Circle Slide – the front cover is a photo of Daugherty’s son, Chance, testing out his Icarus wings in front of a starry night sky. The whole package is so gorgeous that my fear drifted away. This, I told myself, would be a good Choir record.

And it is. It is, perhaps, the best Choir record since Circle Slide. I’ve only lived with it for a day now, but I love it like a friend I’ve known for decades. It is everything I hoped it would be, and then some. While Flap Your Wings sounded at times like the last effort of a broken band, Mighty sounds like that band reborn, back at fighting weight, playing its collective heart out. The irony of the title is magnificent – after three good-to-great records with flight imagery in the title, here is one whose name conjures visions of crashing to earth, and it’s the most soaring thing they’ve done in more than a decade.

Credit must be given to the Choir’s new member, Marc Byrd. He’s an ambient guitar genius, the mastermind behind Common Children and Hammock, and his work is all over this album. The title track opens with oceans of reverbed guitar and Dan Michaels’ lyricon, and they stay all the way through, accenting Daughtery’s wonderful voice and Hindalong’s crashing drum beat. Byrd produced this record, too, and his work in that department is flawless. There are some records you meet head-on and shake hands with, and then there are some that you fall backwards into, so lush is the sound. This, at its best, is one of the latter ones.

But this isn’t Circle Slide II by any means. The Choir have finally found a way to bring all of their styles together, mixing the rock they’ve been playing since ’93 with the space sounds of their earlier work. Mighty is a rock record, but one that sounds more like a Choir rock record than anything they’ve done in this style. It’s 10 short songs, with pop melodies and choruses, that sound like they were recorded on Venus. It’s the perfect synthesis – a crunchy album that swirls, a swirly album that crunches. And the band seems to know they’ve found their sound. They are comfortable and confident on every track, and there is no weak link.

“Nobody Gets a Smooth Ride” gets my vote for best Choir rock song, next to “About Love” from Circle Slide. It just explodes from the speakers, huge and dominant, and yet there’s waves of ambience behind it, and a little Dan Michaels saxophone. “Fine Fun Time” also rocks, this one about how grateful the band is to know each other and have the lives they have. (It also extols the virtues of Husker Du, and you can’t go wrong with that.)

But it’s the slower, lovelier pieces that grab my attention and win my love. “How I Wish I Knew” is one of the prettiest things Daughtery has ever graced with his voice, a song of helplessness in the face of despair: “When your heart defies you, and the dark mystifies you, when the stars shine down from above, how I hope their light is enough…” “Terrible Mystery,” a song of lost love, floats on Daughtery’s acoustic guitar, Byrd’s effects and Hindalong’s always unconventional percussion, and “She’s Alright” simply takes flight. This should be a hit, and in my perfect world, it already is.

Despite its title, “Mercy Will Prevail” is a thunderous, minor-key stunner, and it contains the perfect Choir lyric: “I want to swear it’s true but it’s hard to believe it.” That’s what they’re all about – how difficult it is to maintain faith and belief when life is so unforgiving. “In the thrust of a bayonet, in the hour of deep regret, in a world gone insane, in the eye of a hurricane,” Daugherty sings, telling himself more than anyone else that mercy will prevail. This is old-school Choir, dark and wonderful.

And one song later, they bring the light. “To Rescue Me” is a gorgeous hymn, sparse and vibrant, all about needing to be saved – not just in the Jesus sense, but in the very real and literal “save me” sense. “When I can’t hold on much longer to a rope weathered and frayed, when I can’t find hope and I’m losing faith,” Daugherty sings, and you can feel in his voice that the savior that reaches in to rescue him is real to him. It’s an absolutely beautiful song, whatever you believe, and a great way to end the album.

I don’t know what else to say, really. My favorite band is back, better than they’ve been in many years. I love this record. I love this band. I feel so grateful and fortunate that I got to hear it, and that the band got it together and recorded it. I get to see them live in July, and I can’t wait. I’m gushing, I know, and I’m sorry, but think of your favorite band, and now think of your favorite record by that band, and now imagine that they just released it, and you just heard it for the first time today. That’s how I’m feeling right now. O How the Mighty Have Fallen is right up there with the best Choir albums – it moves me more than I can tell you, takes root at the very core of my love of music. It makes me feel 16 again. It’s a beautiful, wonderful, good great gift, and I thank them for it.

I understand that the likelihood of anyone reading this liking Mighty as much as I do is very slim. I’ve been a Choir fan long enough to know that they’re not for everyone, and I’ve struck out numerous times while trying to turn people on to them. But as I said in an earlier review of their box set, you don’t share a band like the Choir to prove how musically learned you are, you share a band like the Choir because it would be a crime to keep them to yourself. The odds are small, but if you like this album even one-tenth as much as I do, it’s worth it to me, because that means you’ll like it a lot. Go here.

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A couple of quick ones before I go:

The new Garbage album is pretty bad, and I think it’s an unfortunate case of the culture catching up with a unique sound. The first Garbage album appeared in 1995, during the tail end of the grunge thing, and they presented a surprising alchemy – they utilized the processed guitars and industrial noise so prevalent at that time to augment fizzy pop songs. Garbage music had all the hallmarks of the alternative movement – the loud-soft guitars, the whirring electronic drums, the self-loathing lyrics, and the punky-cute goth girl singing them. Just ask the members of Curve – Garbage is often accused of stealing their sound whole, when in fact Butch Vig and company added classic songcraft and melody.

I tend to credit Vig with seeing the potential of this sound – after all, he helped start the whole grunge thing with his work on Nirvana’s Nevermind, which was more an exercise in mainstreaming than anything else. I can imagine him thinking, “If only Cobain were a little more pop, we could have something here…” I’m probably selling the other members of the band short, considering they all were known for their studio work before joining Garbage, and the sound of their first two records could only have been conjured up by seasoned producers.

The foursome gambled on their belief that people responded to the poppier elements of Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins, not the rawer ones, and they were right. They also had excellent timing, releasing their confections just as grunge was dying a slow death. Garbage was the bridge between the garage bands of the early ‘90s and the glossy pop of the late ‘90s. It was a delicate balance, and they pulled it off well.

But here’s the thing – their sound, once so singular, has now been co-opted by any pop producer looking to add an “edge.” Even American Idol Kelly Clarkson’s new single, “Since You’ve Been Gone,” could be a Garbage song, with its guitar tone honed to that just-loud-enough-to-almost-rock-but-not-enough-to-scare-soccer-moms radio sheen. It doesn’t matter that Garbage was 200 times better at such studio wizardry – their one trick is now everywhere, and it’s lost its power.

Granted, Garbage themselves have lost a little something, too. I think they felt the zeitgeist moving before recording 2001’s Beautifulgarbage, which went a little far in the pop direction, incorporating ‘50s-style balladry. I liked that record, but not quite as much as the first two. And now Bleed Like Me, the fourth album, veers a little too far back into the “rawk” arena, sacrificing melody and sweetness. The guitars are certainly more aggressive, and the drums more real, but the songs are only so-so, and some (“Bad Boyfriend,” the inexplicable single “Why Do You Love Me”) are terribly lame.

Shirley Manson’s endless self-destruction is becoming sad, as well, and I can’t tell if that’s a culture thing or just a by-product of me growing up. She even succumbs to a little hypocrisy here – on “Sex is Not the Enemy,” she leads a female empowerment brigade, singing, “I won’t feel guilty, no matter what they’re telling me, I won’t feel dirty and buy into their misery.” But she spends most of the rest of the album feeling guilty, dirty and miserable.

There are two songs on Bleed Like Me that are worth hearing. “It’s All Over But the Crying” breaks the fuzzy monotony for a classic ballad, one that would have occupied the closing slot on Garbage albums past. But this album ends with “Happy Home,” a six-minute wonder with a great riff and a wordless chorus. But that’s it. The rest tries hard to recapture the textured magic of the first two albums, and resoundingly fails over and over. Garbage used to sound like no one else around, and now they sound so ordinary, so average. I’m not sure that’s their fault, entirely, but there you go.

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The big question about Bill Mallonee’s Friendly Fire is, of course, is it worth the wait?

I ordered this album in October of last year, as it was at that time intended to ship right around Christmas. It showed up in my mailbox last week. For some, that would be an inexcusable delay, but for Mallonee, it’s becoming par for the course. This guy has had almost no luck at all during his career, and the hinted-at behind the scenes delays that kept Friendly Fire from his fans seem like just more bad fortune. The shame is, Mallonee’s music deserves a wider audience, especially from the alt-country side of the biz. If you’re listening, Lost Highway, here’s a guy you should sign…

Now that Mallonee’s gone back to his semi-acoustic Americana roots, that pairing seems even more appropriate. He broke from the Vigilantes of Love, his long-time cast of rotating backup musicians, in 2002, and in rapid succession released his first three solo albums. They’re all good, especially the first, Fetal Position, but they found Mallonee stretching his Brit-pop wings a bit, playing treated guitars and singing big choruses. Many of the songs (“Wintergreen,” “Life on Other Planets,” “Crescent Moon”) were among the best he’d ever written, but none had the power of his career’s inescapable apex, 1997’s Audible Sigh.

Then, with last year’s Dear Life, Mallonee pulled out the acoustic again and made a tender, sad songwriter album, in the vein of his earlier VoL work. The record didn’t hit me for a couple of weeks, but once it sank in, it became like an old friend. Happily, he’s continued in that vein for Friendly Fire, the best-sounding album of his solo career, but he’s added violins and mandolins and drums and sweet pedal steel. Honestly, this thing really belongs on Lost Highway, or some similar major-minor roots label.

So, is it worth the wait? Uh huh, oh yeah.

The album opens with its strongest song, “No Longer Bound,” but doesn’t let up – “Is That Too Much to Ask” is terrific, the title track (a story of a returned soldier) is heartbreaking, and “Of Future Partridge Families” is surprisingly jaunty. Throughout, Mallonee keeps a perfect balance between the deep American story-songs he’s so good at and the pop songs he’s getting so much better at. He stumbles a couple of times – “You Were the Only Girl for Me” is kind of simplistic, and closing hymn “Apple of Your Eye” could have been stronger – but overall, this is his most solid and satisfying solo record to date.

Of course, the focus of any Mallonee album is the lyrics, and he doesn’t disappoint on that front either. Friendly Fire is about redemption, mostly, but it’s also about love and weariness. For my money, there’s nothing more moving here (or on any of his solo records) than the title song. It’s subtitled “No More Fight Left in Me,” and it chronicles the post-war life of a soldier who got through combat by thinking of his beloved, only to find that the relationship is not what he hoped it would be: “Now she just slams the door whenever I try to hold her, like I held on for three nights at sea, I got no more fight in me…”

Bill Mallonee’s had a long career, and he’s spent almost all of it under the radar. That he’s still plugging away, still making records independently and playing for small yet appreciative crowds, is kind of amazing. I wouldn’t have nearly the fortitude he has – I’d have snagged a day job years ago, and given up. But Mallonee’s a songwriter, mining a vein, and I don’t think he has a choice. He keeps going because the songs keep coming. Every Mallonee album takes a few weeks to seep in, but once it does, each one becomes indispensable and treasured. Friendly Fire is a great starting point, his best album in years. Visit his website and check it out.

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Next week, Ben Folds.

See you in line Tuesday morning.