Looking Back: “Bloodshot” by The Choir Deeply Satisfies

(This post originally appeared on Goldfish and Clowns in May of 2018.)

It’s difficult to envision veteran Christian alt rockers The Choir being in the company of country artists back when the genre was barely out of its teens, a time finding artists such as The Carter Family, Bob Willis, and Bill Monroe routinely crisscrossing the country planting seeds of a idiom they created. Also, it’s not that Bloodshot, The Choir’s new album, is in any sense a country album. However, there is a common thread; more on this in a bit.

Throughout its career The Choir has with graceful ease traversed between atmospheric and near avant-garde, musically built around Derri Daugherty’s sometimes dreamy and at other moments razor slice guitar while Steve Hindalong’s lyrics have purposefully plumbed relationships, life fragments, and faith through a poet’s eyes. In this respect Bloodshot is no different than its predecessors. The Choir have for decades made extremely even albums, never failing to deliver something solid wrapped within textural diversity. Bloodshot, however, has some twists revealing Messrs. Daugherty and Hindalong are still more than capable of bringing something new to the turntable.

Bloodshot is in many ways the most straightforward album The Choir has ever recorded. Not that the music is an exercise in formulaic commercial ear candy; rather, the songs are simpler without being simplistic: more direct, more immediately accessible. Daugherty frequently employs strummed chords as a foundation upon which to bounce his effects-rich electric work, using it to create far more guitar interplay than is present in most Choir efforts. Even when there is but one guitar present, Daugherty accomplishes the rare feat of creating multiple sound swirls dancing around each other, always perfectly meshed within the song in lieu of drawing attention to themselves alone.

The album also differs lyrically from the majority of prior albums in that it is far more heavily relationship-focused. Not that faith is being dismissed, but on Bloodshot Hindalong is at his most playful and celebratory of love between two people. This is the album you play for those who deride Christian music as bereft of romance.

Where the album harkens back to country’s emerging years is in its songs at their core. They are solid, uncomplicated, and tuneful; the essence of country long before it went cosmopolitan. It is not difficult to hear the compositions and picture them coming out of a dome-shaped AM radio, performed by a small acoustic ensemble in some station’s studio designed for live music. Whether this is intentional or unplanned is something only The Choir can answer, but regardless it is there.

It’s easy, and sadly all too common, for an established band to trot out the same ol’ same ol’ album after album, knowing this will satisfy the vast majority of their audience. The Choir think and act differently. Bloodshot isn’t a radical departure, but rather a superb exploration of songs and sounds fused together, creating a record that’s memorable for all the right reasons.

The album is available on the band’s website.

Looking Back: Seventy Sevens “20 Years Gone” A Superb Compilation

(This review was originally published in December of 2015 on Examiner.com)

As the traditional music industry’s business model transforms in the face of omnipresent streaming and decreasing physical product sales, one of this paradigm shift’s casualties is the greatest hits package. It had been a music industry staple that every year end would bring a large batch of compilation records perfect for gift-giving to the casual fan interested in only the hits instead of any given artist’s catalog work as well as diehard fans needing to have everything released by a favorite. Today, with artists’ product releases separated by years rather than months and fewer consumers owning anything on which to play a CD let alone an album, the greatest hits album has moved alongside aluminum Christmas trees as a relic from a bygone age. Happily, veteran Christian rockers The 77s have given their fans an early Christmas present in the form of Twenty Years Gone, a compilation of the band’s sublime highlights over the past two decades.

Drawing from the band’s catalog in its present trio format, Twenty Years Gone showcases the 77s dual strengths of dreamy, Beach Boys-infused pop and snarling, muscular blues. Ably abetted by Mark Harmon’s supple bass and Bruce Spencer’s subtle drums, songwriter/guitarist/lead vocalist Mike Roe proves time and again he is not a musical chameleon, but rather a multi-faceted master of multiple styles, his tunes always laced with inventive yet comfortable melodies and total six-string mastery. Whether reeling off original songs so well constructed they come across as almost effortless or digging into roots bluesy gospel tracks from the past, Roe and compatriots have created a body of work demonstrating beyond question they are a quintessential American band come not to party the town down but rather to lay bare its soul, pointing out the pain of failed relationships and the healing that comes solely through Christ.

In an era where popular music has become both far more present and increasingly irrelevant in terms of something designed to savor and save, it is utterly refreshing to have a fresh reminder of music as art; not the stuffy pretentious puffery of musicians believing they are too good for their audience, but rather music touching heart, mind, and soul. Roe sings with more than a touch of sardonic on The 77s cover of Wilco’s “The Late Greats” ‘you won’t hear it on the radio.’ Thankfully, with Twenty Years Gone The 77s enable us to hear it period. Which, if not the best gift to receive this Christmas, surely ranks up there.

The record is available for download at the band’s Bandcamp page.

Looking Back: “Unraveling” by Shelly Moore Is A Treasure Waiting To Be Discovered

Although it may not appear to be the case, I am aware of music recorded after 1994, the year the Christian music industry and I bid a not-so fond farewell to one another. While I couldn’t identify most current popular Christian artists if I tried, I am at least aware of a few. I like MercyMe. And then there’s … there’s … um … okay, I like MercyMe.

And Shelly Moore.

I meet Ms. Moore on Facebook, first as a person with shared interests and a decent quantity of friends in common. I’m slowly but surely using Facebook as a networking tool through which to connect with fellow believers of a musical bent. I was aware she created music, but for whatever reason didn’t pursue giving it a listen until earlier this year when she released “Forever Now A Crown,” her first public offering in some eight years. I gave it a try and was immediately enchanted with its gentle yet soaring ethereal power. This led me to immediately snap up her previous work, the most recent of which, 2002’s Unraveling, is the subject of this review.

Moore’s musical base can be described as modern piano pop, sitting comfortably alongside without mimicking artists such as Ben Folds and John Ondrasik’s Five For Fighting. She has a gift for memorable hooks smoothly blending into each song, the end result being tunes boasting both instrumental and vocal lines that stick with the listener as earworms most welcome, not wearying. Moore’s accompaniments are rich without being overblown, sometimes atmospheric and at other times woven from pure Americana stylings. Her vocals are at once vulnerable and confident, warm and human and assured in faith. While Unraveling provides plenty of pleasantry for mainstream music fans, there is well more than enough color and scope to hold more broadminded music aficionados interest.

Lyrically, Moore has mastered the art of simple but never simplistic expressions of both faith and the wide variety of human experience as seen in the light of her faith. Much as the Psalms reflect multiple moments in the human condition, not all of them shouting praise, Moore is unafraid to both celebrate life in Christ and touch on the darker elements of life that beset all believers. There is spiritual and poetic depth in her muse; words reflecting true belief and a firm grasp on not only the deeper elements of life in Christ but deep understanding and acknowledgment of life and its accompanying shadows.

In short, Unraveling is a superb record belonging in the library of every Christian music fan. It’s that good, period. It is artistry and ministry, each at the highest level, brought together in a truly blessed whole. There is a reason why I’m constantly playing songs off of it, along with “Forever Now A Crown” and tracks from earlier albums, on both editions of Cephas Hour alongside my beloved artists from back in the day. It’s because they belong there, and they need to be heard. Again … Just. That. Good.

The record is available on CD and as a download from the artist’s website.

Looking Back: “The Roar of Love” by The 2nd Chapter of Acts Remains A Sadly Underappreciated Masterpiece

One of the more lamentable traits of contemporary Christian music, as it moved from its 1960s counterculture roots into a more widely acceptable cosmopolitan form, has been record labels doing all they can to push new or existing artists into soundalike or even lookalike copies of recently successful secular artists or artistic genres. Examples abound: Bob Carlisle’s first post-Allies solo album which did everything to make him the born again soccer mom’s Michael Bolton except put him in a long-haired curly wig, the Christian boy band Plus One, and of more recent vintage Lauren Daigle’s “You Say,” a song for which the vocal, melody, and construction so heavily clone Adele’s “Someone Like You” one can only hope she at least received co-writing credit.

And then there was The 2nd Chapter of Acts, an act like no other in sacred or secular music. The intricate three part harmonies of the family Ward (sisters Annie Herring née Ward and Nelly Greisen née Ward alongside brother Matthew) occasionally conjured thoughts of Crosby Stills & Nash or more accurately late 1960s The Beach Boys, yet remained exclusively their own. Certainly Herring’s songwriting was like no other, loosely definable as pop/rock but replete with unique quirky yet unfailingly melodic twists and turns simultaneously accessible to mainstream music fans and lovers of original progressive rock; many a record collection of the day featured 2nd Chapter of Acts vinyl unashamedly nestled alongside the Yes and Gentle Giants platters obligatory to any adventurous music fan’s library. The 2nd Chapter of Acts invented themselves, and despite Herring’s comment to me during an interview back in the day that she preferred avoiding listening to much current music as she would find herself unintentionally mimicking same, they remained themselves until they called it a day in 1988, Herring and Ward subsequently pursuing solo efforts while Greisen, alongside her husband, chose church work.

In 1978, having already forever earned their place in Jesus Music history with two classic studio efforts (1974’s With Footnotes and 1975’s In The Volume Of The Book) plus two live releases (1975’s To The Bride, which featured Barry McGuire over the trio, and 1977’s How The West Was One which featured the trio over Phil Keaggy), 2nd Chapter of Acts decided to fully flex their creative muscle and tackle the equally fraught with peril and reward idiom of the concept album/rock opera. For source material, the trio chose C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe,” the first book in his beloved children’s septet The Chronicles of Narnia. As I recall, the music industry powers that be were not enamored with this, greatly preferring something more radio friendly unit shifter-oriented. Thus, The Roar Of Love remained on the shelf until 1980, with 1978’s superb Mansion Builder serving to keep the trio’s momentum uptempo before its release. Hindsight reveals there was no need for this delay.

While The Roar Of Love is not replete with individual highlights, it is a seamless, luxurious whole. Herring’s melodies dip and dance, always perfectly matching the sentiment expressed in whichever part of the story is being illustrated. The accompaniment should sound dated, yet it retains the timeless element skilled songwriting always brings to the table no matter the genre or time in which it is composed. It does help to know the story beforehand, but the album is thoroughly enjoyable regardless.

If The Roar Of Love has any major flaw, it stems from having been recorded ten years too early and/or one album too few. There are times one wishes for the extra time a CD or a double album would have allowed for further exploration of both musical and lyrical themes in lieu of trying to fit everything into a single vinyl disc. Tantalizing moments throughout cry out to be further fleshed out. Nevertheless, the record still deeply satisfies.

It’s not an inappropriate comparison to note that even as Shotgun Angel by Daniel Amos was CCM’s (or Jesus Music, as it was referred to back in the day) Sgt. Pepper’s, so The Roar of Love was its SMiLE minus Brian Wilson flipping out on LSD and, one can safely assume, no moments of Annie Herring needing to explain lyrics to her siblings unlike Wilson struggling to convince Mike Love of the reasoning behind “over and over the crow cries ‘uncover the cornfield.’” That, and it being industry reluctance keeping the record under wraps that prevented its timely release. Plus, unlike SMiLE The Roar Of Love was  completed to the artists’ satisfaction, and Mansion Builder is ten to the power of ten times better than Smiley Smile. These facts duly noted, where the correlation lies is artistry given full rein with the reward being not self-indulgence, but something of immense value. The Roar Of Love is a mighty roar indeed.

The record is available for download from the artists’ website