CMTDS: Chasing the Midnight Speckled Bird Edition

The Choir was the first Christian band I discovered that was…well… an exciting discovery.  It would mystify me when I would share them with people who responded with a shrug.  In retrospect, of course, many of those people were listening to Michal W. Smith and Amy Grant, considering them the height of Christian music.  So, to kick of Choir Week, my tribute to my favorite band…

In 1985, Derri Daugherty, Steve Hindalong and Michael Sauerbrey released their first disc, under the name Youth Choir.  Voices in Shadows was a rather ambitious first release.  They were not singing happy songs with bold spiritual depictions of happy spirituality.  They were starting at a point where most bands work to get to.

This is not to say they were writing totally vague songs of uncertain meaning.  Another World sang of longing for Heaven while Wounds of a Young Heart spoke of the trials of youth and the healing of Christ.  Someone’s Calling was a reference to the verse in which Jesus states he stands and knocks at the door to our hearts.  The band entered “praise” territory with Anyone But You and a Million Years.

The two standout tracks were the lamentations Dreams and Why Are All The Children Crying.  Both a sence of hurting and discomfort, one focused inward and the other outward.  Now, the music is very keyboard heavy, and feels very dated.  Listening to Voices In Shadows is more like a trip in time, rather than a timeless selection.  It would be interesting to see the band re-record the songs now.

Next was the band’s indie EP Shades of Gray.  The band was preparing to tour with Steve Taylor and produced this five song set.  This album marks a couple of things.  First, although Steve Hindalong was listed as the drummer on Voices in Shadows, the drums were all from drum machines.  That is mostly true except for the EP’s track Fifteen Doors.  It also is the first time Tim Chandler play’s bass for the band, it will not be his last time.  And, of course, Dan Michaels joined providing Sax and lyricon.

While the band had not intended to release it as an official release, they were trying to get out of their record deal, and allowing the label to release it made that possible. Most memorable are the praise songs Fade Into You, All Night Long and the song Fifteen Doors.

The band signed to Myrrh records, which was kind of unexpected, I suppose.  They were not the typical Myrrh act.  The relationship lasted quite a bit of time, starting with Diamonds and Rain in 1986.  As

Produced by Charlie Peacock, this was the first album with the shortened name of The Choir.  And frankly, it really is the first Choir CD.  Derri, Steve, Tim and Dan are all performing on it, for one thing.  No drum machines. Limited keyboards.

Musically, the band was coming into their own, with Peacock’s help.  He contributed the gentle pop of Kingston Road.  But wht really stands out are the poetic lyrics.  They sing of Alcoholism using the metaphor of a triangle and of Christ’s death and resurrection as an act of painting.  The standout songs, in my opinion, are Love Falls Down and Render Love.  Render Love speaking of love as an action-something you do to people, it wistfully notes that “ash is what fools reap, war what they sow, what does  man gain, if he loses his soul?”  Another winner and the big radio hit for the band would be Fear Only You.  Part praise song, part social commentary, Derri almost becomes guttural in his delivery of the chorus.  This is truly the hardest the Choir rocked on their early work.

The album cover seems to indicate the label was more interested in promoting Derri and Steve as the Choir (maybe they felt Dan and Tim looked to average joe-no tall 80’s hair). That motif continued to 1988’s Chase the Kangaroo which featured blurry images of Steve and Derri.

But that is not what makes this disc stand out.  This is the Choir’s re-birth.  The first three releases were just practice runs.  Chase the Kangaroo is a swirling, dreamy guitars, the lyricon, saxophone, bass and drums.  Penning deeply personal lyrics, Hindalong took bold risks, singing about the struggles he and his had with a miscarriage in Sad Face.  Sorrow is better than laughter, for a sad face is good for the heart, wrote Solomon.  And it was this proverb that helped strengthen them.  It is a freeing concept, and one rarely mentioned in Christian music.  Christian music was about convincing you to become a Christian, or encourage your Christian walk.  Sharing each others sorrows?  Not so much.

Sad Face is a beautiful song, and it is evocative of the poetry that punctuates the entire album.  The Rifleman uses the old TV series to address the troubled dichotomy of many-“When I prayed for peace, but reveled in war.”  The spoken word delivery for the verses brings a weary feel, much like the revisionist westerns such as Unforgiven.

So Far Away is the first of a few songs expressing the heartache of being on tour, far from your family.  The song paints an image of a husband and wife communicating more by notes and passing questions than having time to sit and talk.

Consider is the most evangelistic song on the CD.  It is from the perspective of Christ, asking the listener to consider His love:

Consider one small child
Consider your cross
Consider the hope that withers like a flower
Consider My loss
Consider the fire
Consider the night
Consider the truth
Consider the light, my love
Consider your heart

The song has a driving rhythm, full of an energy that can be both mellow and aggressive at the same time.  There is much to admire about this CD, it is full of atmosphere and mood.  It is an album to own.  It is an album that can seem dark, with hope sometimes seeming mired in the human condition.  But that was due to change.

They say that having kids changes your perspective on life.  This is why I have avoided having any.  But it was clearly true for Steve Hindalong.  The 1989 CD Wide Eyed Wonder is an upbeat, hope filled piece of pie.  Hindalong and his wife had their first child-a daughter- and the entire album seems cheerier, more excitable.  The album kicks off with the rock number Someone To Hold On To, a declaration of a need for someone more than oneself to keep a grip on life.  “Someone higher than the moon.”

There is the wonderful ballad Wide-Eyed Wonder, which expresses the love, hopes and dreams Hindalong held for his newly born daughter.  Wide Eyed Wonder started to involve the trend of songs dedicated to family.  It also marked the change in the band’s lineup.  Bassist Tim Chandler left the band due to other obligations (Tim was very in demand, playing with Daniel Amos and later the Swirling Eddies).  His replacement was Robin Spurs.  At that time in Christian music if you has lady in the band, she probably was your lead vocalist or played tambourine (or both).  But Robin was not the lead vocalist, she was the bassist.  Robin seemed to fit in with the band pretty well, to the point that Hindalong and Daugherty developed a song around her talking about a crazy dream she had (Robin Had a Dream).

One year later the band produced Circle Slide.  Pure dreamy alternative art, the album was kind of expected to be the one to cross over.  This was due in part to Epic releasing the CD to the mainstream.  It was not a successful bid, in spite of how good the album was.  Unlike Wide-Eyed Wonder, which was more “up” tempo, Circle slide was mellow. The opening epic track is seven minutes long, using a slide as a heavenly metaphor.  Circle Slide had even more complex lyics than before.  The album asked questions with no answer, such as in About Love, where Derri sings

Was I meant to be yours?  The will of Christ above? Do You Believe true love is blind?  Cause I don’t know.

About Love is a strangely dark and yet entirely romantic song, declaring

There is something liberating Death alone brings, there is something funny about a lot of sad things there is something wonderful about love

I would say that my favorite track on the entire disc is the haunted Restore My Soul.  It’s a dark and beautiful take on brokenness that is the perfect end to the CD.  The lineup changed again, Robin stepped out of the band and original bassist Michael Sauerbrey stepped back in.  Michael only played on one track, as Robin stepped out due to creative differences mid-way through the recording process.

This is easily as important as Chase the Kangaroo, and a must have for anyone starting to take interest in the Choir.  The band took a hiatus when Word Records gave Derri and Steve their own record label.  They used it to showcase work from Ric Alba (formerly of the Altar Boys) and the Throes.  They also produced the At the Foot of the Cross worship seies.  Interestingly (and I suspect consciously) the band never used Glasshouse to release a Choir CD.

In 1993, the band put together a demo to shop around their work.  They released it independently and called the disc Kissers and Killers.  This is the bands first full blown rock CD, really.  Right from the opening track, Gripped, the Choir makes it clear this is band is not going to go quietly off into the night.

Chandler was back, making this return to the old guard (so to speak) feel entirely new.  The songs are mostly musings on relationships, the tensions of marriage, temptations and such.  One of my favorite tracks on the disc is I Love Your Mind.  It’s chorus speaks of desire for one’s beloved in both intellectual and carnal terms, and they are wonderfully intermingled.

This is a rare disc now, and while most of the tracks got remixed for their next CD, one track was left to spend a few years in obscurity.  It featured Steve on lead vocals, and it also had the last recorded work of Mark Heard (this is a technicality as he did have some demos of his own that were unreleased at the time of his death).  Heard played accordion on the track.

Speckled Bird was released through R.E.X., a record label known primarily for it’s metal bands.  The Choir was a surprise addition.  The disc was comprised of seven of the seven tracks from Kissers and Killers and five new tracks.  It continued the aggressive nature of K&K, including an electrified version of their song the Wilderness (previously heard in acoustic form on the first Browbeats compilation).  It’s a solid collection of songs, and a rather unique part of the Choir catalog, and somewhat out of place.  But it still have several memorable and strong tracks.

Meanwhile, Dan Michael joined Tattoo records, which led to the inevitable…

Their next album was released through Tattoo records.  Speckled Bird starts a motif of flight and birds that the band seems unable to shake and the new CD was called Free Flying Soul.  This was a bit of a step back from the more aggressive Speckled Bird, but showed the band finding a comfortable place between their sounds.

One element that is missing from almost the entire disc is Dan Michael’s trademark Lyricon.  It appears in one song.  Dan was, of course busy with day to day label stuff, which may have presented a challenge to be a big part of the album’s music.

Standout tracks include Sled Dog, Salamander, Away With the Swine and the beautiful the Ocean , a metaphor for the Church.  The band toured with Common Children, which led to Marc joining the band for live performances as a second guitarist in later years.  The band won a Dove award for Best Modern Rock album.  The tour with Common Children was meant as a farewell, and they released a recording of live material from the tour.

The band decided to retire and focus on other endeavors.  Other than some Cornerstone appearances, they were effectively done.  Derri and Steve produced worship albums (City on a Hill).  Tim moved back to California and a day job.  Dan started a new label (Galaxy21).

But as 2000 neared, the band started to realize that maybe they were not all done.  They enjoyed performing together.  So in early 2000, they started writing and recording an album they planned to release independently.  While working on the album, close friend Gene Eugene of Adam Again passed away.  This resulted in a song being added to the CD to say “goodbye for now”.

Flap Your Wings was released through the Galaxy 21 label, and it showed none of the signs of a band phoning in another album.  No this felt like a band that found a new, fresh approach to their songs.  They blended their more worship oriented songs in with the songs about love and family.  There were songs such as Flowing Over Me and a “cover” of Beautiful, Scandalous Night (From the first At the Foot of the Cross).  Hindalong’s penchant for confessional songs about family were met with a Moment in Time and I Didn’t Mean Any Harm.

The most memorable track for me is Hey Gene, which celebrates the memory of Gene as a bright, quirky and fun guy… with Derri declaring “So sad you had to go.”

The CD, to everyone’s surprise, was nominated for a Grammy.  After years of being on larger labels and being overlooked, the small indie release made for the band and it’s fans catches the Grammy’s eye.  Go figure.

At the same time, to celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary, they put together a box set called Never Say Never comprised of the first eight or nine (depending on how you count Kissers and Killers or Shades of Gray) studio CDs and included a bonus disc of rare material (demos, remixes, songs from compilations, b-side, etc).  There was also a book full of memories, both from the band and the fans, along with lyrics and photos.

It was another five years and the band produced another  studio abum.  O How the Mighty Have Fallen marks a first in the bands entire history.  Derri and Steve had no involvement in the production side.  Instead, they placed themselves in the hands of Common Children’s Marc Byrd.  Marc is close to the guys, and this pays off with a wonderful set of songs that sound like a natural progression for the band.

Byrd actually wrote music for several songs (and Tim Chandler wrote music for Noone Gets a Smooth Ride).  Yet, never do these contributions feel out of place, all the songs feel like they are part of the same family.

From day one, the Choir wrote lyrics that dared to ask the questions, hope and dream and shed honest tears.  They created music that could propel dreams and faith.  And for that?  I declare that Derri Daugherty, Steve Hindalong, Dan Michaels, Tim Chandler and their various other players with the Choir make Christian Music That Doesn’t Suck.

Oh yeah…they have just released a new album (apparently, they are on the five year plan now).  It is called Burning Like the Midnight Sun.  I will address the CD tomorrow…hint… I liked it.

By the way…the three color live photos are from here.  This person has some great concert pics.

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