Burning like the Midnight Sun
Artist: The Choir
Label: Galaxy 21
Time: 11 tracks / 50 mins
After some five years, The Choir is back with a sound that comes straight from their early days, but with a fullness of tone that reflects today’s production values. They have done it on what is possibly their most cohesive, melodic and atmospheric collection to date.
Within twenty seconds, Derri Daugherty’s beautifully tender vocals and that light, jangly, but purposeful guitar slip snuggly into the ear as they always used to. Some of the old themes return; during “That Melancholy Ghost” words like ‘sad’ and ‘melancholy’ kindle sparks of old songs such as “Sad Face,” all supported by the unique, dream-like atmosphere that the band creates.
Marc Byrd brought a more gentle feel to their Previous disc O How the Mighty Have Fallen , but here those sounds have grown sparklier, with every musician wrapping their own instrument around the sound of the others. Trying to separate the guitars of Daugherty and Byrd from Dan Michaels’ Lyricon (breath synthesizer) and sax can be like extricating yolk from an already-cooked scrambled egg.
This disc really is like a good friend coming back and chatting about what has been happening in their life, as they cover themes like perseverance in relationships (the splendid title track), moving on from the past, putting love above dogma and (unusually) four of the songs are about band members and friends. While that runs the danger of being self-absorbed, here it comes across as chattily sharing their lives with the listeners and “Mr. Chandler” is one of the songs that most comes back to mind when the player has long stopped. The other colleague songs are “I’m Sorry I Laughed” about when Dan Michaels was so exuberant once during a sax solo that he fell over; “Legend of Old Man Byrd,” which is a personal tribute to a colleague; and “A Friend So Kind,” an obituary to pianist Tom Howard, who died in January.
It’s not just the sound that is warm, but the affectionate tone of the songs themselves. The Howard homage captures why he was so important as a friend and shows the character of the man himself:
When you feel ashamed and ugly insideThe tone grows more intense on a pairing that looks for grace. “The Word inside the Word” contrasts the aggression of some Christians with the mercy-minded approach of Ghandi, Buddha and possibly Mohammed, before focusing on Jesus’ own message of good news. Turning the knife, “It Should have Been Obvious” uses our hindsight about where Christians have gone wrong in the past (“The cross of Christ on fire, a shameful misrepresentation”) to make us re-think some of our interpretations of scripture in the present. As usual, they avoid accusation, holding their hands up when they have fallen themselves (“Yeah, that was me, the self-appointed judge of your own orientation”).
More than ever before, The Choir has come up with vibrantly visual lyrics full of poetry and insight, while keeping the listener involved. Free Flying Soul was obscure to the point where it felt like the listener was sitting with a bunch of people all telling stories full of in-jokes and coded language. It was almost impossible to identify with. Here, the basic ideas are clear, but beautifully decorated. For those who want to be even more included, there is a commentary disc available from the website that goes through each track.
Packaging has not been a strong point of the band in the past, but this cover is fantastic Ron Lyon’s artwork captures the feel of what is inside and flows into the booklet, which thankfully includes lyrics this time. Not only does it look good, but its textured card face feels great too.
Burning Like the Midnight Sun may not quite have songs with the individuality of “Car, etc,” the perfection of “So far Away” or the intense groove of “Restore My Soul,” but that may help it all to flow together seamlessly. For fans who have longed for a set that is as tuneful and resonant as the superb Love Songs and Prayers retrospective (which has the advantage of being plucked from several releases), this sonic delight is the nearest they have ever come. Beautiful.
Yes, Burning Like the Midnight Sun makes it an even dozen for the well-loved band that was indie before indie was cool. You don't survive the process of creating 12 studio albums without growing. The mohawks, screaming guitars and, yes, some of the fire of the early days of this group, first known as Youth Choir, have been replaced by more introspection, subtlety and experiential maturity.
Still composed of Derri Daugherty (Vocals, guitars), Steve Hindalong (Drums, percussion), Tim Chandler (Bass guitar), and Dan Michaels (Saxophone, lyricon), with a little more choir and a little less youth, still this quartet makes music that provokes thought and points toward the invisible. Perhaps more accessible than their more obscure efforts, Burning Like the Midnight Sun starts out with the mid-tempo indie-pop of the title track (more economically titled, “Midnight Sun”) which sets the tone for this fine collection of hook-laden, melodic treats. The songs go down easy and it's only later, when you start to really digest them, that you notice that the lyrics contain more than what initially meets the ear.
With most of the songs written by Daugherty and Hindalong (“It should Have Been Obvious” was written by Max and Tim Chandler and Hindalong, and “Invisible” by Tim Chandler and Hindalong), The Choir's sound remains essentially the same as fans remember it to be, with this newest effort sounding like a comfortable union of the band's eclectic quality and a more listener-friendly vibe. This is not to say that The Choir has compromised at all, but just that they sound more at home in their own skin, less confrontational, more – dare I say it – domesticated. Maybe it's the unruffled, gentle vocals of Derri Daugherty that make even the more aggressive lyrics go down smoothly. Again – not a bad thing, just an observation. Dougherty is in no danger of become the Perry Como of indie-rock...
Once again, Hindalong contributes intriguing lyrics to songs about life's disappointments and inequities, love, and loss, but not without a few wryly-humorous self-referential tales featuring certain band members. Amidst all of this introspection is the statement from “Midnight Sun” that declares, “I'm not a carnival balloon, goin' down slow but soon / More like a chemical fire, unrelenting...” And unrelenting they are, still singing and playing songs about surprising grace.
In “A Friend so Kind,” they sing in memory of Tom Howard: “...still it's good to know your great heart / is glad and restored / Forever smokin' fine cigars at the table, the table of The Lord,” a sentiment certain to gnaw at the theology of some – although I've got to wonder if Gene Scott himself is distributing the heavenly Havanas.
Hindalong's poetic side is most evident in passages like this one, from “Between Bare Trees,” one of the album's most memorable and delicate moments - “Rivers of love and peace / Flowing over you and me / Slivers of silver-blue between bare trees.” The haunting melody and production bring life to the words, even if at first listen we're not quite sure what the song is about.
“It Should Have Been Obvious” and “The Word Inside the Word” challenge a sometimes callous, sometimes judgmental Organized religion that forgets that the to love your neighbor as yourself is just second to loving the Lord your God. Those same fingers point back at us, though, on the Beatle-esque “I'm Sorry I Laughed,” a psychedelic period-piece of a song that references a simple unexpected stage-dive from a band member but ends up as much more: “Profoundly dark psychology / humorous because it was not me / Everybody sure will fall....” All is not dark and serious, though - “Mr. Chandler” is an amusing tale of a bass player versus a by-the-rulebook clerk at an airport.
The Choir is in excellent form here with a very appealing album for those who are willing to listen with patience and openness. With a little help from Christine Glass Byrd (occasional background vocals) and Marc Byrd (extra guitars), The Choir delivers their newest work – a very listenable, thoughtful pop album cleanly produced and crafted – right down to the cover art by R.R. Lyon. Fine lyrics, fine musicianship (Mr. Hindalong in particular, turns in a stunningly smart performance behind the drum kit, playing articulately and with finesse). The Choir will not rock your socks off but they certainly will make you think.