Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review - The Choir - Burning Like the Midnight Sun

The Choir knows how to treat their fans well. Burning Like The Midnight Sun is their twelfth album in a hundred zillion years. Or almost thirty. Look, this isn’t a statistics lecture and you’re getting me off track. The point is that this time around the band went hog-wild with fan friendly flotsam. You can buy the album, with its lovely tri-fold format full of nice artwork created somewhere near a computer but not with a computer, or you can download the album and rip the band off by sharing it with your friends. You can also get the “Directors Cut” CD which plays the album in full with the band rudely talking over the music. Sure, they’re telling about the making of the album and the stories behind the songs but still… MANNERS, PEOPLE. The complete freak can get the “Stems” DVD which has all the parts for each song broken out into its own track so you can mix and remix your own version of the album. Or said freak can just listen intently to, say, just the drum tracks or backing vocals until their eyeballs shoot out of their head. It’s a free country.

But all the options are worthless unless the music is good. Which would be the question. Is it? Or maybe the question is “Will the reviewer answer the question before his editor gives him the axe?” I’ve been writing for this hear paper for about half as long as The Choir has been cranking out albums, though suspiciously I seem to have dropped off their Christmas Card list. Hmmm…. In a nutshell, or a clamshell if you’re feeling rich, Burning Like The Midnight Sun is a fine, fun album. Not their best, though. Not the “instant classic” that many of their fans claim. But then again, what do I know? If “many of their fans” hail the album as a classic and this one old grouch in Indiana says it’s a strong A minus my guess is that most listeners would do well to disregard said reviewer. In which case I’m out of a side-job so forget you read that.

This time around the band heads back to their roots, recalling their spartan Chase the Kangaroo days (that’s one of their early albums, 1988, to be exact), conjuring up sonic textures akin to The Church and Cocteau Twins while simultaneously forging ahead. Translation: it sounds a bit like their late 80s albums but instead of being a boring rehash the band packs in lots of fresh ideas. There’s lots of gauzy guitars and spacey sax floating around in linear melodic lines that draw you in, stuff that sounds simple until you realize how the two guitarist are dancing around each other (though in the studio they didn’t, or at least they didn’t in the many “making of” cuts they posted on You Tube, another friendly gesture to their fans) and hooking in the bass. Unlike some past efforts there aren’t loads of layers, instead stripping back the bark to effectively focus on the core of each song. A few of the songs rock, though none as hard as their excellent Kissers and Killers, a few songs dreamily drift by in anesthetic glee and at least one will leave you scratching your head at their psychedelic wit. Since it’s been five years since they released their last album, O How the Mighty Have Fallen (in my meager opinion a creative pinnacle and available from the bands website for a disgustingly low price), the band hit the studio hungry – unlike many of the albums by bands with their tenure or “Grammy-nominated” status there’s no sign that they are phoning it in.

Lyrically The Choir has always been a favorite of fans because of their willingness to flay open their hearts, writing candidly about friendship, marriage, and parenthood. “Friendship” they have covered as many of these songs are about (wait for it…) themselves! Yes, drummer/tambourinist/lyricist Steve Hindalong wrote songs about a humorous run-in at the airport involving their bassist, Tim Chandler, a song in honor of second guitarist Marc Byrd hitting a milestone birthday (“Legend of Old Man Byrd”), a song about the passing of Tom Howard (“A Friend So Kind”) and a ditty about an occurrence years ago when their sax player Dan Michaels fell off a four foot stage (“I’m Sorry I Laughed”). Two songs (“The Word Inside The Word” and “It Should Have Been Obvious”) remind us that Hindalong is more poet than theologian (‘Nuff said) and “That Melancholy Ghost” is an excellent, echo-drenched song about a nearly grown daughter who is plagued with depression and the pain and helplessness a parent feels in the face of a child suffering.

This leaves the relationship songs. The relationship songs… where did they put those again? Huh? Oh yeah… on the “Directors Cut” Steve mentions that his revealing “insider secrets” of his marriage on past albums has caused negative tensions with his wife so he scaled that back. Good for his marriage, bad for us. The lone track that almost touches on this subject is “Between Bare Trees,” a song which likens the necessity of winter “death” to make way for the colorful explosion of spring to relationships that also undergo tough seasons that clear the relationship rubbish, clearing the way for better times. The album highlight comes at the very end with “Say Goodbye to Neverland,” a song about growing up even if you’re pushing fifty. Just as the rest of the album contains a sprinkling of lyrical references to past albums, Neverland contains multiple meanings: aside from the obvious Peter Pan reference it’s also the name of guitarist Derri Daugherty’s previous studio, the contents of which were liquidated in his divorce, an event that no doubt forced much inner searching and growth. While most of the song is a midnight vigil of stark piano and sobering lyrical melody they allow the beast known as Tim Chandler to fuzz out a bit near the end before reining him back in. Like the rest of Burning Like The Midnight Sun the song works magnificently. And if you want to find out what the title means, well, I’m not gonna spill the beans. Buy the album. Better yet, buy this album and their previous album. You won’t regret it. Or maybe you will… I’m just some hack music critic, not a fortune teller.

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