A band with a record of quality releases over a long period time is a rare breed. Most bands shine for a few moments, only to dim and fade out under the weight of the creative process. And, often the most brilliant acts are the most tortured ones; artists half-mad who undertake the nearly impossible task of bearing their vulnerable souls through music. It’s so rare, then, when a group of musicians happily spend years together, continually creating compelling music that drives the medium forward with ingenuity and creativity. The Choir is one such band that has been able to resist the wild forces that regularly break apart such ensembles. Consisting of original members Derri Daugherty (lead vocals, guitars) and Steve Hindalong (drums and main lyricist), saxophone/lyricon/keyboard player Dan Michaels, and long-time bassist Tim Chandler, The Choir has enthralled listeners with their brand of moody and sublime music for upwards to 20 years. All through the years, too, the band has never shown any hint of dissent or disunity within its ranks, and instead have shown a remarkable ability to play off of each others’ strengths and musical vision.
This unity and camaraderie is one of the elements that make their 10th studio album (not including box sets, compilations, solo and live albums) O How The Mighty Have Fallen such a joy to listen to, especially for long-time fans of The Choir. As one listens to this 10 track full-length CD released on Galaxy 21 music, one can sense the mutuality that the band members enjoy both in their musical ideas and in their relationships. Another aspect of O How The Mighty Have Fallen that renders it an intriguing listen is their selection of wunderkind Marc Byrd (of the rightly-hyped spacey instrumental group Hammock) as producer. With Byrd’s touches evident all over O How The Mighty Have Fallen (to the point where the band adopts Byrd as an official member of The Choir and invites him to play and help write songs for the album), The Choir seems to be a band with a fresh perspective and energy about them, despite their many years together.
So, enough with the accolades and background…how does O How The Mighty Have Fallen measure up to past classic releases by The Choir such as the venerable Circle Slide, the ground-breaking Chase the Kangaroo, the fuzzified splendour of Speckled Bird, or the deliciously sublime Free Flying Soul? Well, the answer to this question is “Quite well”, with some qualifications. Firstly, the band’s songs are fresh-sounding and inspired. Clearly the years of playing and writing together has not caused a kind of musical “rigor mortis” to set in on The Choir. The music is well-arranged, well-produced, and features touching lyrics that speak about a variety of life issues. Daugherty‘s tenor sounds clean as always, showing no sign of the wear and tear of singing lead vocals for so many years. Sonically, the band is well-balanced and seems to have recorded a CD as a united band effort, as opposed to merely being a collection of disparate individuals. There seems to be an ease to O How The Mighty Have Fallen, as if the songs effortlessly flowed out of the band member’s hearts and onto tape. This ease is augmented by the delayed guitars of Daughterty combining with the ethereal drones of Byrd, played over restrained playing by the other band members. The mood on O How The Mighty Have Fallen is often wistful (without being sullen), and slightly moody without being aggressive or dark. Songs like “How I Wish I Knew”, with its acoustic lead guitar, accenting delayed guitars, minimalist percussion and subtle strings, breathe out with an air of gentleness and breeziness, while other songs such as the title song benefit from Byrd’s dreamy treatments and the band’s full arrangements. Simply stated, O How The Mighty Have Fallen sounds like it’s been recorded by a group of expert musicians who understand each other and music extremely well, which is precisely a good description of The Choir.
Another striking aspect of O How The Mighty Have Fallen are the lyrics, which are always a highlight of any Choir release. With a broad range of topics that include divorce, depression, resilience in the face of trials, humility, old friendships, and, ultimately, faith, Hindalong brazenly tackles subjects that are close to the heart of the band members. While the religious content of some of the lyrics may confuse some non-religious listeners, Christian listeners no doubt will appreciate the Psalm-like mood of many of Hindalong’s lyrics. And, while a non-Christian listener may not relate to some of the lyrics of O How The Mighty Have Fallen, all music fans can appreciate the vulnerable self-revelation that is found in the lyrics, as well as drawing encouragement from the hope that the band members find in the midst of the trials of life.
Having mentioned the strengths of O How The Mighty Have Fallen, what are the qualifications mentioned above? Well, the strange thing about O How The Mighty Have Fallen is that, even with Byrd’s dreamy delay and Michaels’ sensuous lyricon, the songs on this CD still retain a rather conventional feel. Now, this conventionality is not necessarily a bad thing, but it sets O How The Mighty Have Fallen apart from past Choir releases. Gone are the wild experimentalism of songs like “Car, etc”, “Sunny”, “If You’re Listening”, “Restore My Soul”. In its place, The Choir has essentially recorded well-written pop-rock songs coated in a layer of reverb and delay. The melodies are classic, and the band seems uninterested in letting new sounds overtake their songs. Which, again, is not a bad thing, since the songs on O How The Mighty Have Fallen are so strong and catchy. Take “She’s Alright”, for instance, with its radio friendly melody that screams Top 40 hit. Or the subtly fuzzy rock song “Nobody Gets a Smooth Ride”, another song with a catchy melody and only subtly “alternative” in sound. These songs, as well as the right others on the CD, point to a more straight-forward approach to album-making that may catch fans who were expecting a Circle Slide sequel.
Perhaps because of this conventionality, or perhaps due to Byrd’s recognizable production and Hindalong’s hesitation to step from behind the drum set to play more varied percussion instruments, or perhaps because of the way Chandler’s bass is a little more buried than on the more recent Choir releases, O How The Mighty Have Fallen sounds peculiar when lined up with the rest of the band’s catalogue. This may not be a bad thing, as this release is a very very good one with compelling songs, touching lyrics, strong performances, and a cohesive vibe both lyrically and musically. Once long-time fans immediately get over the surprises in store for them on O How The Mighty Have Fallen, they can revel in the wonderful music that this group of musicians have created so far into their career. And, with their fresh approach to making music as well as their poignant (yet catchy) songs, The Choir seems poised to make new fans with their slightly dreamy rock-pop music featured on this release. To accomplish after 20+ years together is a mighty feat indeed.