Chicago’s Scotland Yard Gospel Choir self-titled album is impressive and overwhelmingly inspiring. The sophomore release teams with reasons why there was so much anticipation surrounding the chamber pop collective’s emergence beyond the confines of the Windy City a few years back. And in just nine songs that collectively jar, heal and inspire, front man Elia and company convey a depth of emotion in song and lyric that answers questions about the band’s future but still keeps you guessing.
Lead singer/songwriter Elia finds his lyrical strength in the awkwardness that most people avoid, especially in a public setting. And it’s in that arena of bold vulnerability where this album lies and sparkles with a blue-tinted melancholy. It’s a mix of brutally candid and confessional storytelling filled with myriad moments of swelling strings and layers of keys that surgically open your heart, allowing the blood-soaked lyrics to pour right in.
Each song is a raw emotional chronicle of how far Elia has come over the last few years, personally and professionally, as he has successfully kept Scotland Yard Gospel Choir from becoming just a memory on the Chicago music map. At the height of its growing popularity buzz in 2003, which included shows with The Arcade Fire and Spoon, co-songwriter Matt Kerstein left to pursue his own musical aspirations, leaving local fans and acclaiming critics wondering if the Choir would continue without Kerstein. Between then and now Elia worked to have various songs placed in Fox TV’s the OC and in independent films while he and cellist/vocalist Ellen O’Hayer continued to play live shows with an ever-changing supporting cast of local musicians.
Without a doubt, this sophomore album retains the best of what Elia brought to the first record I Bet You Say That to All the Boys. His Belle and Sebastian inspirations have evolved and he’s refined the band’s frantic orchestra-pop style, paring it down to his preferred structure of short two minute pop song sprints comprised of heavy and personal revelations about his struggles with drug addiction, relational fallout and death. These brief bursts of song are riddled with gorgeous and crafty hooks and combined with upbeat acoustic guitar-based melodies that find their beauty when they violently thrust against and contrasted with the sparse and jarring lyrics. One thing’s for sure, listening to this album and looking back at the first album track-to-track, shows clearly that Kerstein’s departure was inevitable as the two songwriters were being led in two very different stylistic directions. Kerstein leaned more towards the slow building climatic swoon versus Elia’s frantic charge forward.
Pulling from his Hemingway inspirations, there’s little wasting of words and a vivid cathartic frankness. Welsh-born Elia makes every lyric a precise injection that lingers underneath the emotional epidermis. He’s candid about his past drug dealing ways in the melodically upbeat come-cleaner “Apisrtada” “I used to buy drugs down at aspidistra/I used to buy drugs, I knew all the police by first name/how are the wife and kids/just hanging out no need to run me” And like many of the songs, a few verses later he unashamedly sings how he’s it at peace with himself about the past. “..It was to many run-ins, to much running away/ and if you ask my now I’d say/I’m not sorry for…buying drugs down at aspidistra.” Opening his heart and mind further, five tracks later, he explores the questioning of his sexual identity in “I Never Thought I Could Feel This Way For a Boy”.
The multi-layered and lush orchestrations of keyboards and horns merged together with the serene and breathy vocals of Ellen O’Hayer on “In Hospital” and “Broken Front Teeth,” demonstrating the progression into a type of songwriting that’s a continuation of her previous contributions, an irresistibly eerie combination that prickle the hairs on the back of your neck as the songs slide along an icy and undeniable mirror of pain and fear.
On their debut recording Elia’s ability to write the spastic pop tune or dip into a slower more melodic ballad is what created the buzz surrounding the band. But it was their high-energy almost chaotic live show fueled by a stage packed with at least eight players all swirling in an orchestra-pop tornado of horns, keyboards and guitars.
Much of that excitement remains but on this release the production intricacies are more subtle, giving the album a developed emotional resonance and cohesiveness that wasn’t as consistent previously, a successful swapping of a bit of the spastic childlike energy for crisper more succinct and mature songwriting. And as the helix of organs and keyboards twist around, wrapping up the final moments of “Everything You Paid For,” there’s no question whether or not the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir has successfully survived a potential extinction and returned with more promise than before.