Monday, December 14, 2015

Music Review - The Choir - Chase the Kangaroo

Somewhere I read that when it came time for The Choir to record their fourth album, and for Adam Again to record their second (Ten Songs By Adam Again) that they went to the record executives with a deal*. Instead of paying some studio ten grand each in studio time, why not give these two bands the twenty grand and they’d build their own studio. After all, Derri had official engineering experience, and probably the same for Gene. Amazingly the studio went for it. What a bargain! Gene went on to start The Green Room and upped the ante on the quality of Christian music while Derri and company hunkered down for six months to self-produce their first masterpiece, Chase the Kangaroo.

Even before you hear a note the album cover tells you that something is different. Christians are “supposed” to be clear and have exact, understandable answers based on thoroughly systematized theology. Instead we get a dark, blurry photo full of indistinct shapes, a perfect representation of the music within. Speaking of, let’s dig in, shall we?

The opening track, “Consider”, was written last because the record company wanted something radio friendly. I can’t imagine this song being played on an of the all-vanilla-praise stations in my town… how far have we fallen? This song has a deep, spongey bass tone, thick sheets of shimmering guitars and an intense, eager drum beat. Even though this was a tip of the hat to “the man” the song is packed with energy, a wonderful blend of shoegazer and melodic rock. In “Children of Time” each piece of the band (drum, bass, guitar and vocals) fit together like a puzzle, stringing together unsettling lines like “The cosmonauts were first in space / To look for God and find no trace” before ending with a brief, wild sax solo. “Clouds” opens with ominous low synth strings and an inventively panned repeated drum part that forms a hypnotic spell before Derri sings “The blood remains as red / That colors our spirits white.” This here is a classic Choir song, an experience and a journey as much as a song, following the darkness of the tone with the unlikely dark lyrics of “Clouds are round about you / Shadows veil your eyes.” Remember, kids, we’re supposed to be the light in a dark world and have all the answers. Umm… yeah. Around the three minute mark the song melts into a froth of reverb, leaving only shadows of the original signals in a glorious artistic display of studio experimentation. Before leaving this song I’d like to comment on the bass line. It’s simple but perfect, like a constant heartbeat holding together the complex interchange of instruments and reverb.

Written in response to a miscarriage, “Sad Face”** is packed with gorgeous chiming guitars, stuttering low guitars and a lovely round drum pattern in the verse that sounds like its being played on a dark and cloudless night on the thin hope that some ray of relief will shine through. There are lots of misty instrumental passages where Derri bounces cascades of guitars off each other to create a most intoxicating listen and then around the five minute mark the song transitions to a passage containing light strings over a reverse vocal section of “Clouds” and someone it works. The guitars on “Cain” sound urgent***, almost dangerous while lyrics like “Love raised a white flag” add complexity to the mix, although the abundance of piano makes me think this song would have fit in well on Diamonds and Rain.

Side two starts with The Choir getting even more experimental with “The Rifleman” where a sparse guitar part plays while whoever walked into the studio speaks lines concerning an old television show, often overlapping, before drums and a fretless bass make their appearance. The chorus is sung, forming a foundation and amazingly the song comes together splendidly before fading into the chorus of “Render Love” from Diamonds and Rain. There’s so much to love about “Look Out (For Your Own)”. There’s the drum part in the verse that switches around the beat, the unusual instrumental mid-section with echoing saxamaphone, and the crazily inventive bass part which is minimalist and so unlike anything I’d heard before. A final capper is Gene Eugene singing background vocals in the chorus… it’s always great to hear his golden voice. RIP, Gene. “So Far Away” is a stark love song about missing those you love while being on the road with artful glimpses of domestic life such as “I saw your note about the pilot light / Didn’t I fix that thing before?” and “I won’t be there to dry your eyes / So please don’t cry /When I’m so far away.” “Everybody in the Band” is a nice little ditty but it’s not fleshed out and never was meant to be. It’s kind of like a demo you get for no extra charge. The album closes with the title track, a song inspired by the fact that Steve had to get a construction job**** in order to make ends meet. Starting with a chuffing beat and eerie backward-like vocals, the song is classic Choir in that it takes mundane events and explodes them into a spiritual analogy, in this case digging deep for truth. Two thirds of the way through they open up the throttle and the song really takes off. And keeps going upward, building in intensity through the chorus and closing with a final melodic instrumental exploration.

In Chase the Kangaroo it seems like that the band knew that were at a turning point in their career where the odds were that they would likely to be sent home packing. So instead they doubled down and gave it everything they had, and then some, and as a result recorded a pivotal album that has inspired bands such as Switchfoot, Sixpence None the Richer and Jars of Clay to make their own musically and spiritually rich music. Their first of several classic albums!

* Per Tim Chandler, while some of the money for the album may have gone into Derri’s studio this whole story has no basis in reality. I have no clue where it originally came from although I wouldn’t put it past my brain to have made it up.

** An embarrassing aside… I recall being at home with in college and singing this song to a female friend (nothing more) over the phone. A cappella. It makes me cringe on many levels just thinking about it.

*** As well they should as the song deals with the hurt of personal betrayal.

**** Which to me seems a bit comical in itself because Steve’s build is not big ‘n’ burley.

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