OK, so choirs are trendy on TV right now (there's almost as many of 'em as celeb chefs!) - and especially community choirs it seems. But Commoners Choir ain't just another community choir - no sir! - for it genuinely doesn't sound like any other, it's unique among community choirs.. You'd be hard pressed to find a better example right now, methinks, either in terms of spirit and standard of performance (great ensemble and discipline; reliable intonation and diction; and creative use of light-and-shade and emotional expression) or choice, arrangement and composition of material - the latter all the original work of, or at least steered by, their Übermeister/supremo Boff Whalley. Now Boff, you'll remember, was a key member of the mighty Chumbawamba collective (as singer, songsmith, guitarist), and here with this new choir, although he's nominally the coordinator, songwriter and arranger, he also takes due inspiration, input and interjection from choir members.
Commoners Choir's manifesto is clear-sighted, clearly expressed and admirably leftist, and takes no prisoners. The Choir, in its press-release, describes itself thus: "a rag-bag assortment of ne'er-do-wells, misfits and troublemaking cake-eaters who have come together from all corners of the globe to sing harmonious insurrection, to rouse the rabble and to raise a smile or two." For they "sing a balance between anger and celebration, up for a scrap but determined to have fun doing it." And, following the example of Chumba before them, they're thought-provoking and air-punching; quirky, witty and tuneful; angry and clever; intelligent and savvy; strange yet open and inclusive and companionable; and refreshingly unpredictable (which among other things means they don't sound like a Chumbawamba covers band!). Although… Commoners Choir's eponymous debut CD adopts something of the method of latter-day Chumba records in presenting the listener with a cohesive politico-social commentary and artistic statement, not just a randomly sequenced procession of songs with potentially embarrassing silences in between and no sense of connectivity (although for sure, individual songs can still be sensibly extracted from the running order and performed relevantly and meaningfully outwith the continuous context of the record). Audio samples and spoken word extracts are interwoven creatively into the songscape, to relevant and pointed effect.
The physicality of raw, basic human voices singing together a cappella - "just voices, that's all", indeed - is a miracle of life itself, and one that's celebrated wherever the Choir performs. For Commoners Choir members, says Boff, enjoy a special participation, an exhilarating experience that's something between being in a band and being in a choir, "neither one nor t'other, but the best bits of both" (he memorably describes this ensemble as "a mutant lovechild of Crass and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir"!). There's lusty unison, ingenious parts and surprisingly beautiful harmonies - everything that a good choir does, and better still, these folks rehearse until they're brilliant! And by the way, CD co-producer Neil Ferguson has captured the special dynamics of the Choir just as brilliantly.
The individual songs are pithy and to the point; more than half of them are over and done in well under three minutes (and some considerably less), while even the longer ones can't outstay their welcome. Together, the album's 21 songs form a "singing newspaper for today", the men and women singing with marvellous melodies, powerful voices and passionate ideals about "stuff that happens, stuff that should be happening, stuff that matters". They embrace the bigger issues of injustice (of course) which crop up everywhere; as well as causes-célèbres such as inequality (The Have-Nots And The Haves), homelessness (Shelter Song), the power of literacy (Mechanical Movable Type) and vanished communities (Great Big Hole). There's also songs dealing with specific scenarios or historical events, such as the food riots in 1816 at Ely & Littleford (Bread Or Blood) and in 1795 at Castleford (Bread And Beer), and the 1932 Mass Trespass. Stances and viewpoints are cleverly contrasted - the desperately bleak prospect of Three Boats is counterbalanced by the rousing natural togetherness of Citizen Shanty and the empowering positivism of From Below, for instance. The People's Armada (ostensibly a response to the Hebden Bridge floods) interpolates a section of Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land, while the innocently titled Song For Woody, on the other hand, conceals a rather more controversial debate in song. And you can expect nothing less than mischievous controversy, naturally, in songs with titles like Boris Johnson (as in Backpfeifengesicht!) and The Jeremy Hunt Rhyming Song (say no more!).
So go "get off your arse" and buy this CD, and invite Commoners Choir into your cramped living-room, yeah! But also go see them perform live - in usual and unusual places. Their first appearance (in 2015) was on the top of Kinder Scout in the Peak District; since then, their variable-strength presence (anything up to 50 members!) has graced concert halls, festivals, demonstrations, cabarets, churches, libraries, galleries and museums - they can crop up anywhere with an audience and a reason to sing. And hey, more power to 'em!
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