The Churchills add two new members for a triumphant return to hard-hitting indie rock that's a little less pop, a little more emo, a lot darker lyrically, yet catchy and potentially commercial as ever.
Depression affects some 13 to 14 million people in any given calendar year, and the statistics on teen depression indicate that one in five probably suffers from some sort of mental or emotional problem. Therefore it's no surprise that this latest musical collection from the Churchills targets the depressed, or at least anyone who may have experienced or can sympathize with such dark feelings. The majority of the songs on The Odds of Winning manage to present desperation filtered through the power of crunching guitars, strong melodies, arrestingly smooth vocal harmonies, subtle hooks and eclectic chord and rhythm changes.
Founding members and songwriters Ron Haney (guitars, keys, vocals) and Bart Schoudel (bass, vocals) are joined by two new members in what is now their strongest lineup yet. Scott Haskitt, a multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter who also fronts the Lightbox Exhibit (and who previously toured Europe as a guitarist for the Churchills), has joined up as drummer and glockenspieler. The quartet is completed with Jed Higgerson, the man who plays guitars in the band Dibs, plays drums in Andrew Holtz's band, and plays bass in the band Hello Lovely. Higgerson just plays guitars for the Churchills.
Having four multi-talented musicians doesn't always guarantee success, but in this case, the chemistry works. The tight sound is superbly clean and well-engineered (by Bart and Ron), with tracks mixed by Chris Athens (the Neptunes, Beastie Boys, Simon & Garfunkel) and Godfrey Diamond (Lou Reed, David Bowie). The end result bristles with power, a relative tour-de-force of sonic expression that begs for a wide summer audience.
Since songs from their second album, 2000's You Are Here received a spin on television's Spin City, the band has received good media exposure with songs featured on television shows like E.R., Scrubs, and Everwood, and in films like Comedy Central's Porn and Chicken and Mira Sorvino's Too Tired To Die. The good news is that tracks from this new album already have been licensed to Third Watch, E.R., Summerland, and Scrubs.
It's easy to hear why. Haney and Schoudel work in emotional terrain that appeals to the universal, and their smooth vocals alongside slick guitars still retain the infectious allure of power pop translated through a broader college-rock palette. Yet unfortunately they remain something of an obscurity, lesser known than many "emo" bands that cover similar ground (Jimmie Eat World, Death Cab for Cutie, just to name a few). Perhaps it's just a matter of time.
The new CD opens with "Not So Goodbye", a catchy mid-tempo ditty of regret and farewells from someone convinced he could have been someone, done something more with his life: "And I want to see but you're too far / And I can't forget 'cause we were too close / And I want you back 'cause life is too short / But I won't let go". Among the subtle hooks here are synth accents and select harmonies.
"Sometimes Your Best Isn't Good Enough" is one of several songs here that dissect less-than-perfect relationships. Powerful guitars drive the song forward, as the singer relates how he wants his life back, stuck in a relationship that leaves him unsure of what he wants or if he can manage to do anything about it. It's a great catchy anthem of teenage and twenty-something angst, and should prove popular with many who can sympathize with the plight.
In a rare show of lighter lyrical fare, the Churchills confess "I'm a Sucker for a Girl in Uniform". Drawn to police women, military women, and others (that look like Ashley Banfield), the song is a pleasant endorsement of the camouflage jeans set, betting that "underneath the armor, girls just want to have fun".
One of my personal favorites here is the title track. It's an intricately structured song that deals with a mess of emotions that build and collapse into a sweet, infectious, harmony-filled chorus. Here's a guy who was a mess. He turned and ran from a wonderful woman, and has finally figured her out too late, after the fact, "too late to matter". It's a small tragedy, brought home by the coda's "What did I do?", but one with which most can identify, I'm sure.
"Do You Want Me to Go Away?" builds slowly, as one ponders a dreadful relationship as murder ("I am right where you left me to die / In a car that drove off the Brooklyn Bridge"), en route to asking his partner the dreaded question of the song's title. Pleasantly halting in its rhythms, "It Only Hurts When I Breathe" does a great job of describing total near-suicidal despair. Awaiting death in time that "crawls like honey", our desperate narrator proclaims: "It only hurts when I breathe / I only breathe when I cry / I only cry when I realize I'm stuck here". This track is powerfully affecting.
"Tailspin" updates elements of Zeppelin's "Kashmir" into another bad relationship's bold dissection. Beautiful, smooth lyrics travel atop the spare yet powerful chords, about a man looking at a partner about to lose it all and unable to help her, realizing she can't depend on him any longer, that they're in a tailspin and crumbling fast, that he doesn't feel she's worth the trouble any longer. This is another very powerful track, affecting in its stark simplicity and honest confessions.
The Churchills go mostly instrumental in "Spun", a brief melodic coda to "Tailspin" that features a synthesizer melody surrounded by strong bass lines that seem to threaten and warn of impending danger. The dilemma behind "Unpopular" is being tied to a person who is tired of you. Such a situation doesn't do much for the self-esteem, yet this person rails against the injustice and the constant boredom of the monogamy, seeking a solution to what is cited as this: "From where I am to where you are just seems impossibly too far / You make me feel the space near me must be unpopular".
One of the more musically upbeat offerings here is "They're Never Going to Find Me". While it sounds cheery (and encourages one to sing along), in actuality this is about a man running as fast as he can to stay one step ahead of his own fears in what most likely will prove a lost race in the long run. Still, it's mighty catchy. "Waiting for Someone to Save Us" is one of the lesser lyrical efforts here, a guy in the subway station contemplating life and time wasted, a generation awaiting redemption from outside sources. Still, the song is pleasant enough, guitars crunching powerfully to drive home the point (it's just not up to the level of others in this collection).
Even the seemingly optimistic songs here turn out to be something else. The happy title of "We're All Light and Stars" is a tad misleading -- it's really a song about disillusion, discovering things are not quite so rose-colored as the glasses might indicate: "I feel like love is what the movies show to me / And Meg Ryan's hard to believe / And I can't keep chasing after every dream". This slower ballad features some lovely musical fills and pretty harmonies, building up to the title's wistful a capella refrain. The CD closes with a short reprise of "Not So Goodbye", bringing the recording full circle, tying the end to the beginning.
The Churchills manage to express their many talents well in the dozen or so songs that comprise this new collection, with a sound that's more "emo" rock and a little less traditional pop. Still, the songs are relentlessly catchy, the guitars are loud, the vocals are smooth, and the subject matter is dark, but compelling. Perhaps the media exposure will lead to a greater popularity -- it certainly is much deserved. Judging by the splendid music and its ultra-clean production values, I'd say The Odds of Winning are most favorable indeed.