A Primer on Christian Alternative Rock: The Choir

This is the first entry in what will be a regular ongoing series, in which I examine the history and discography of some of the best artists in the underground Christian rock scene of the 1980s and 1990s. That scene doesn’t really exist anymore, largely because Christian music is more about producing songs for congregational worship instead of songs about literally any other topic. My hope is that these essays will spur our readers to listen to some of these bands and support them financially; many of them are still more or less active. I also hope that I’ll be able to take some steps toward demonstrating that Christian rock–even if most of it was terrible–had some genuine artists among its ranks.

I use the term alternative as a genre descriptor, but also as a way of designating that I’m trying to avoid the really big bands. So there’ll be no essay on the Newsboys or DC Talk, however much I might like a few of their records. I also won’t be talking about bands whose most important work comes before 1981 (Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill) or after 2000 (Sufjan Stevens, Derek Webb). The scene I’m talking about has pretty definite contours, beginning (let’s say) with the release of Daniel Amos’s Horrendous Disc in April 1981 and ending with the death of Gene Eugene on March 20, 2000. I’ll make the case for those bookends when I get to the essays on Daniel Amos and Adam Again–for now, you’ll just have to take them as an item of faith.

My plan is to release a new essay on the fifteenth of every month–each one will require a great deal of listening on my part, and I think if I try to move faster than that, I’ll get discouraged and quit. If there’s someone you want me to cover, feel free to make a suggestion.


A Primer on Christian Alternative Rock: The Choir

The_Choir_WebWHO ARE THEY? No one in Christian rock sounds quite like The Choir, whose music relies on atmospheric, swirling guitar parts and left-of-center if sentimental lyrics. They came, as so many Christian musicians did, out of the Calvary Chapel scene in Orange County, but from the beginning they were clearly shooting for something artsier and darker than their peers.

The Choir’s two consistent members are drummer/lyricist Steve Hindalong and vocalist/guitarist Derri Daugherty, who were introduced by sometimes-bassist Tim Chandler in the early 1980s. Chandler went to college with Hindalong and played bass for Daniel Amos, for whom Daugherty worked as a roadie. The story goes that Hindalong and Daugherty recorded a demo, which Chandler passed along to Daniel Amos frontman Terry Taylor—who listened to one song, then tossed it behind him. Even so, Taylor would eventually give their band its original name: Youth Choir. They wisely changed it to The Choir a few years later.

They went through a succession of bass players, including Robin Spurs—a rare female musician in the world of Christian rock—before settling on Chandler in the early 1990s. Chandler is one of the most undersung bassists in popular music, and most of their best records feature his work, which perfectly compliments Daugherty’s guitar textures. (Hindalong, I should say, is also quite underrated as a drummer. If you’ll check your Christian records from the 1990s, you’ll find that he was quite in demand as a studio percussionist.) But probably the most distinctive element of the Choir’s sound comes from Dan Michaels, who joined the band after their first album, playing a saxophone and a strange device called a lyricon, an electronic wind instrument that allows him to match Daugherty for strangeness.

In 2005, Marc Byrd—late of Common Children and now the mind behind the atmospheric post-rock group Hammock—joined the band, and their soundscapes became even richer. The Choir continues to put out records and tour sporadically; last year, I saw them in Minneapolis playing their 1990 album Circle Slide in its entirety.

GENRE TAGS (OTHER THAN ALTERNATIVE ROCK): Dream Pop, Folk-Rock, Neo-Psychedelia, New Wave, Noise Pop, Post-Punk

RIYL: The Church, Explosions in the Sky Psychedelic Furs, U2, The War on Drugs

WHY DO I KNOW THAT NAME? You may know Steve Hindalong for co-writing the modern hymn “God of Wonders,” which appeared on the first City on a Hill album in 2000 and made a pretty big splash on the worship scene. Your church may also have sung “Beautiful Scandalous Night” from a decade earlier. Failing that, you may recognize Hindalong and Derri Daugherty for producing and engineering dozens of Christian alternative albums from the 1990s, including, most triumphantly, The Prayer Chain’s Mercury.

WHAT’S THEIR BEST SONG? Probably “Love Your Mind,” from Speckled Bird (1994). It’s the sort of dark, adult love song that Steve Hindalong does best—a glimpse at a marriage built on love with unsettling cracks in its foundation.


Discography

MUST-HEAR

Speckled Bird (1994). I suspect this is a controversial choice for the best Choir record, because it’s pretty atypical of their sound. We associate the band with guitar atmospherics, but Speckled Bird is driven by a thechoir_speckledbirddistortion pedal rather than by chorus and delay. What’s more, Steve Hindalong’s songs are generally about evenly divided between love songs and songs about God, but there are very few of the latter here—only “Wilderness” and “Spring” qualify, and then only vaguely.

Hindalong’s love songs, moreover, tend to founder faster than his religious songs, because they’re more prone to sentimentality. But there’s little sentimentality to be found on Speckled Bird. I don’t presume to know what was going on in Hindalong’s life at the time, but the album seems to me a picture of a marriage in serious jeopardy. “Love Your Mind,” as I mentioned above, is an excellent example. The narrator, driving with his wife, tells her that he’ll slide over and let her drive but that he fears she will “take us both into oblivion”—or at least into a ditch. “I’m thinking about strangling you,” Daugherty sings elsewhere, and the threat of violence is only partially mitigated by the next line: “You know that was never more untrue.” Really? Never? These songs are brutal at times, but they’re beautiful and about as honest as Christian rock of any variety allows its songwriters to be.

Daugherty’s vocals, on other Choir albums, can be a little smooth for my taste. He’s a good singer, but his voice lacks any real grit whatsoever. So the music around him needs to compensate, and in that sense, his discovery of noise on this album is a very good thing. Besides, the distortion on Speckled Bird is not the distortion on Nevermind and its thousand grunge successors—it’s as layered as the guitar sound on any other Choir record. Listen to the middle eight of “Amazing,” for example, where the guitar parts are as thick and warm as I’ve ever heard. Or listen to the flange swirl around “Kissers and Killers” and try to figure out when Daugherty is touching the strings. The distortion is an addition, not a replacement—and over the top of it, Daugherty’s vocals are as strong and fierce as they’ve ever been.

Early versions of seven songs on Speckled Bird originally appeared on the independently released Kissers and Killers. I believe most of them were re-recorded—or at least had elements added to them—when Daugherty and Hindalong moved Neverland Studios from California to Nashville. I prefer the versions on Speckled Bird, but that may just be because I knew those for years before I ever heard the earlier versions. Kissers and Killers also features one song not available elsewhere, the Hindalong-led “Let the Sky Fall.”


NEXT STEPS

Wide-Eyed Wonder (1989). Steve Hindalong’s lyrics have always tended toward sentimentality, which is why they’re generally at their best when they’re a little sour and a little dark, to mix my metaphors. Wide-Eyed Wonder, however, has a number of straightforwardly sentimental songs—and they work. The album was largely written after the birth of his first daughter, Emily; the Hindalongs had clearly been waiting for a child latestfor a long time, and “Sad Face” from Chase the Kangaroo was written in response to a miscarriage.

So about half the songs on Wide-Eyed Wonder are pretty straightforward, lyrically and musically. On a track like “To Cover You,” Daugherty trades in his post-punk atmospherics for folk-rock arpeggios. The two most obvious songs to Hindalong’s daughter—“When She Sees Me” and “Wide-Eyed Wonder”—are even more stripped down and straightforward, and they are profoundly moving even for the childless, like me.

Pushing back in the other direction is a new psychedelic feel to The Choir’s music. “Robin Had a Dream” is the most obvious example. It has something no Choir song has had before—a groove—over which Daugherty and Michaels shovel layer after layer of swirl. The lyrics, apparently describing a real dream of Robin Spurs’s in which Hindalong underwent surgery, match the music pretty well. “Car, Etc.” is perhaps even stranger, another groove with guitar and lyricon noise, over which Daugherty sings a nursery rhyme for adults.

Wide-Eyed Wonder also has The Choir’s first recorded cover song: a nice, loping country-rock version of George Harrison’s “Behind That Locked Door,” featuring Mark Heard on autoharp; the band had wisely brought him in to produce the folkier songs. Three members of Adam Again also appear on the album; I believe that they were recording either Ten Songs by Adam Again or Homeboys in a neighboring studio.


Circle Slide (1990).
Most fans point to this as The Choir’s best album, and they have a point: Daugherty’s guitar work has probably never been better, and the production is weird in the best possible ways. “If I Had a Yard,” for example, features Michaels’s lyricon run through a wah-wah pedal that Hindalong presses as he plays drums. Circle-Slide-Album-Cover1Hindalong and Michaels turn in career-best performances, while we’re at it: the drums on “If I Had a Yard” are a force for chaos rather than cosmos, and Michaels’s shimmering sweeps are an essential part of “About Love.”

Listening to it again for this project, I am struck by how much of a groove the band strikes. It’s most evident on the closer, “Restore My Soul,” which is as close to funk as The Choir is ever going to get. But the title track is much more bass-driven than I’d remembered it being. It’s played by Robin Spurs, who wrote the basslines for the dancier tracks on Wide-Eyed Wonder but who left midway through the recording of Circle Slide, leaving Mike Sauerbrey, their original bassist, to play on “Restore My Soul.”

To my ears, though, the songs—other than “About Love,” a classic—aren’t as strong here as the ones on Speckled Bird or Wide-Eyed Wonder. This is a producer’s album, not a songwriter’s. Listen to “Blue Skies,” in which Daugherty’s voice floats above an abyss of e-bow and kick drum, with little else for most of the length of the song. It’s a beautiful song in terms of how it sounds—but in terms of its craft, it’s not much of a song. And that’s all right; Circle Slide is a great album any way you look at it. It’s just not their greatest.


Flap Your Wings (2000).
The Choir’s 21st-century albums, even at their noisiest and most anxious, have a calmness to them that I can only chalk up to a band that is no longer playing for anyone but themselves. Flap Your Wings is the most successful of these late-career records. Its opening title track slathers a relatively 1280x1280straightforward pop song with gallons of weird noises, as if Robbie the Robot were being brutally slaughtered in the studio. (That’s a compliment.) “Sunny” is even stranger. Listen to it on headphones; at various points in the song, you won’t be able to tell if your ears are popping are not. But all that experimentation hovers above an album that is warm and friendly, a group of friends getting together to create something they can enjoy.

The Choir’s message board has disappeared, but I was a frequent contributor while the band was recording Flap Your Wings, and I remember being struck by the places where Hindalong got his lyrical inspiration. My two favorite songs are the noise-pop numbers “Shiny Floor” and “I Don’t Mean Any Harm.” The former, if I recall correctly, is about Hindalong spilling punch on Tom Howard’s kitchen floor; the latter began with the strange pre-chorus—“Before Old Man Winter chills your bones / I’m gonna build a fire, heat up some stones / Put them under your feet / I really want to keep your cold feet warm”—which he sang to his daughters as he tried to get them out of bed in the morning. Here, too, he’s not trying too hard, but it’s a glorious kind of not trying that allows him to make art out of everyday life.

Flap Your Wings also features the first lyric written by Derri Daugherty since the band’s first album: “Mercy Lives Here,” which describes a bar full of losers in Ohio and the quiet ministrations of the Holy Spirit thereto. Daugherty is a very different sort of lyricist than Hindalong, but the song is charming enough that I wish he’d do it more often.

WORTH A LISTEN

Burning Like the Midnight Sun (2010). The spiritual center of Midnight Sun is three songs—“The Legend of Old Man Byrd,” “Mr. Chandler,” and “I’m Sorry I Laughed”—that are about the three undersung members of the band: Marc Byrd, Tim Chandler, and Dan Michaels. Byrd’s song is a fun diversion, but Chandler’s and Michaels’s are both excellent and funny. (Hindalong has always been funnier than he gets credit for.) On the other hand, the didactic “The Word Inside the Word” and “It Should Have Been Obvious,” whatever you think of their message, are too calculated to provoke the band’s conservative fans to really work as song. “Invisible” is along those same lines but more nuanced; it’s probably my favorite Choir song of the 21st century.

Chase the Kangaroo (1988). The opening three numbers herald the band’s maturity: “Consider,” the Choir at its U2-iest; the driving, Pascal-cribbing “Children of Time”; and “Clouds,” Hindalong’s ode to divine inscrutability, are so far ahead of anything that came before them you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a different band altogether. The rest of the album doesn’t match those heights, but there’s a lot of excellent material here, including the title track, inspired by Hindalong’s day job digging ditches. Hindalong and Daugherty handled production duties themselves, at their own Neverland Studios, and consequently, Chase the Kangaroo sounds much less dated than the records that preceded it (see below). We also see Hindalong’s debut as a singer on the acoustic ode to tour managers, “Everybody in the Band.”

Free Flying Soul (1996). This was my first Choir record, and it still has two of my favorite songs: the back-to-back punch of “The Ocean” and “If You’re Listening.” But while I love the closer, “The Warbler,” much of the second half of the record drags. The album belongs to Tim Chandler in a way that no other Choir record does. His bass is essentially the lead instrument on “Salamander” and “Polar Boy,” and he provides the atonal rumble that undermines the chiming guitars on “If You’re Listening.” He plays guitar on “Slow Spin” and the postlude of “The Chicken,” and he even, according to the liner notes, wrote a single word of “Leprechaun.” (Chlorophyll, if you’re wondering.) If I were trying to convince someone of Chandler’s greatness, this is where I’d send them.

O How the Mighty Have Fallen (2005). Marc Byrd, late of Common Children, joined the band and produced this album. Byrd does the atmospheric thing even better than Daugherty, and at times on O How the Mighty Have Fallen his playing becomes almost gnostic, lacking any clear physical source and ascending to the entirely spiritual. The album was written, I believe, in the aftermath of Derri Daugherty’s divorce, and songs like “She’s Alright,” “Terrible Mystery,” and “How I Wish I Knew” seem to address that situation directly. I’m more partial to the dark humor of “Nobody Gets a Smooth Ride” (“Hold on tight to the bar / Circus trapeze star / What a shame should you fall to your death” makes me laugh every time) and the amiable collegiality of “Fine Fun Time,” with its surprising praise of Hüsker Dü, a band with whom The Choir has little in common musically.

Shadow Weaver (2014). The Choir’s latest album is overly long, but the songs are pretty strong. In the last ten years or so, Hindalong’s theology (at least as far as his lyrics are concerned) has been cheerfully creeping to the left, which can sometimes seem confrontational. Shadow Weaver finds him more comfortable with these positions, on “The Soul of Every Creature Cries Out” and “Everybody’s Got a Guru.” The musical highlights are the epic “It Hurts to Say Goodbye,” in which the band bids their adult children farewell, and the rubbery title track.

THE DISCOUNT BIN

The Loudest Sound Ever Heard (2012). Steve Hindalong openly had problems with alcohol for many years, and he began attending Alcoholics Anonymous in 2011. That’s an unalloyed good, and I don’t want my dislike of the resulting album to be taken as a suggestion that artists are better or more interesting when they’re messed up. But the band probably should have waited a year to record Loudest Sound—most of its songs are platitudinous to a degree that The Choir had never reached before. It’s especially true on “I’m Learning to Fly” and “Cross That River,” which are essentially composed of a string of clichés. The music, too, sounds languorous, with little to hold onto in terms of melody or arrangement. I have no doubt that these songs were an integral part of Hindalong’s recovery, and as such I feel guilty criticizing them, but the truth is that the results were much better when he returned to some of these themes on Shadow Weaver a few years later.

Voices in Shadows (1985). I don’t listen to Voices in Shadows, The Choir’s debut, very often, and I had remembered it as their worst album. It’s not, even though the lyrics are terrible, and Hindalong is largely absent as a drummer, most if not all of the tracks using a drum machine. (His most notable contribution is a hubcap being thrown across the room during the middle-eight of “Someone’s Calling.”) Daugherty’s guitar work, however, is quite good throughout. He’s operating mostly in a post-punk mode, with serious influence from U2’s The Unforgettable Fire—but several of the songs have an atmospheric new wave vibe not a million miles away from A Flock of Seagulls, and “Wounds of a Young Heart” does that propulsive jangle-pop thing that R.E.M. perfected on Murmur. The lyrics are indeed embarrassing (“There was a time I trusted you to help me bear the pain / But I look out my window now, and all I see is rain”), but if you can listen past them, Voices in Shadows has glimmers of the greatness to come.

FOR FANS ONLY

Shades of Gray (EP, 1986). Released the year after Voices in Shadows, this EP is largely a continuance of that album’s sound, with a new social-justice theme to the lyrics. Truthfully, they can get a little narmy—but the guitars are still pretty good, and “Fade Into You” is probably the best song from this era of the band’s work. The big news is that Shades of Gray is the first appearance of Dan Michaels, whose lyricon makes “More Than Words” much stranger than it otherwise would have been. Youth Choir is starting to sound like The Choir. Shades of Gray was reissued on CD as an addendum to Chase the Kangaroo; a few years later, it was released as a single disc with Voices in Shadows, where it more properly belongs.

Diamonds and Rain (1986). Charlie Peacock produced Diamonds and Rain, the nadir of the Choir’s career. Peacock is always a mixed bag as a producer—he makes some interesting choices here and elsewhere, but you can always tell exactly what year a Peacock-produced album came out. Dated production doesn’t doom an album, but it certainly doesn’t improve weak songs. The lyrics on Diamonds and Rain, especially in songs like “Render Love” and “(You Do That) Triangle,” are becoming stranger and more poetic, but they still tend toward patness, and the music doesn’t save them this time around. Sometimes when a band is about to make a big artistic jump, they put out a weak album—Diamonds and Rain, which came just before Chase the Kangaroo, is a case in point.


GREATEST HITS, ETC.

The band put out a conventional greatest-hits set, Love Songs and Prayers, in 1995. The title sums up the two types of songs they do, and the album itself is a pretty good selection. It also contains a few rarities: an early version of “A Million Years”; a remix of Wide Eyed Wonder’s “Car, Etc.,” which strips the song of some of its more dated trappings; and a noisy instrumental excerpt from the pre-Youth Choir days.

In 2001, they put out a boxed set called Never Say Never: The First 20 Years, which contains their first seven albums in their entirety, along with a disc of outtakes and alternate versions. The set is out of print, but the bonus tracks are available for ten dollars from The Choir’s web store. There are a few new songs, some early demos, some non-album tracks (the acoustic version of “Wilderness” from 1993’s Brow Beat: Alternative Unplugged is one of the best things The Choir ever did), some solo tracks from Michaels and Hindalong, and an electronic remix of “Cherry Bomb” from Flap Your Wings.

2010’s De-Plumed features acoustic arrangements of twelve songs, one from each of their records to that date (including that year’s Burning Like the Midnight Sun). The arrangements are appealing, if quiet, and the song selections go beyond their greatest hits.


LIVE ALBUMS

The band has four officially released live albums: Let It Fly (1997); Live at Cornerstone 2000, both Plugged and Unplugged (2000); and Live and on the Wing in Music City (2014). For a group whose sound is so dependent on atmospheric guitar work, The Choir is a very good live band, and all four of these albums are well-done. But Live and on the Wing has the broadest sweep and the best recording sound. I also have to recommend Live at Cornerstone 2000 Unplugged, if only so you can hear an eighteen-year-old me jokingly suggesting that their latest album is called Free Flapping Soul. I was a jag even then.


SIDE PROJECTS

Daugherty is a member of the supergroup The Lost Dogs, and Hindalong joined the group in the late 2000s—but that band deserves its own write-up, so I won’t deal with them here. I’ll also deal with the two Kerosene Halo albums, collaborations between Daugherty and Michael Roe, of the Lost Dogs and the 77s, in the Lost Dogs installment.

Steve Hindalong has two solo albums, 1998’s Skinny and this year’s The Warbler. Hindalong’s voice is weak but immensely charming; as he notes in a song from The Warbler, it sounds a lot like Neil Young’s. I prefer Skinny, which is ramshackle, recorded with a number of different collaborators. The Warbler has a consistent band throughout and loses a bit of the charm of its predecessor, but it’s still worth hearing if you like Hindalong’s voice.

Daugherty is recording his first full-length solo album as we speak. He put out an EP in 2002 called A Few Unfinished Songs and an instrumental album of ambient guitar called Clouds Echo in Blue. The latter is fine sonic wallpaper. The former is sunny, Beatlesque folk-rock that sounds more like Daugherty’s work with the Lost Dogs than the Choir. Daugherty also just put out a surprise album of ambient instrumentals and covers.

Dan Michaels has a solo album from 1991 called Reveal, but it’s so out of print that it was released only on cassette. There are a couple of songs on the final disc of Never Say Never. Beyond that, I’ve never heard it.

Hindalong and Daugherty are responsible for two series of worship records. In the 1990s, they put two records called At the Foot of the Cross. Neither fits neatly into the U2-meets-Mumford-and-Sons vibe of the current worship scene, but the first volume, Clouds, Rain, Fire, is much stranger than the second, Seven Last Words of Christ. Amidst the pleasant adult contemporary sound of Clouds, Rain, Fire, Hindalong and Daugherty have mixed in elements of the Catholic mass.

The first volume features mostly people from the Christian underground: Mark Heard, Michaels Knott and Roe, and Victoria Williams; the second album goes much more for the CCM mainstream, with then-contemporary mainstays like Bryan Duncan and Brent Bourgeois. Seven Last Words of Christ is worth the price of admission, however, just for the Julie Miller/David Mullen/Gene Eugene collaboration “Forgive Us.”

The City on a Hill records are less interesting to me because they are less idiosyncratic; they largely fit into the CCM mold of the era. But the first installment does feature Gene Eugene’s final recorded vocal performance, on “Marvelous Light,” as well as a Mac Powell cover of Adam Again’s “The Tenth Song” (here wisely renamed “I Remember You”). One of my favorite anecdotes from my days of reviewing Christian rock records revolves around this album. I was sent a copy of it to review, but when I put it into my CD player, it turns out that it was a Don Ho album. I’m still not sure what happened, but part of me has always been disappointed that City on a Hill didn’t have a more Hawaiian flavor.

7 thoughts on “A Primer on Christian Alternative Rock: The Choir

  1. I’ve got a copy of “Reveal” on cassette somewhere, and it’s not terrible, but it’s a Psychedelic Furs homage from beginning to end, and Michaels doesn’t have the greatest voice. Andy Prickett from The Prayer Chain handles most if not all of the guitar work.

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