Andrew Choi, who goes by the moniker St. Lenox, is a lyrical genius with a strong sense of rhythm and a deep appreciation of the emotional resonances inherent in basic electronic sound effects. His free-flowing narratives sparkle with wit, sensitivity, intelligence, and imagination, and Choi gives them a pop soundtrack. Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love reaffirms the universality of personal experiences as he remembers the past and tries to make sense of the present. He transforms his stories into appetizing confections that make them go down easy, even when the subjects get heavy.
Consider the autobiographical ballad called “Vincent Van Gogh” in which he compares his situation as an unhappy, solitary troubadour to the suicidal Dutch master. Like Van Gogh, Choi’s just “a poor crazy hipster with a blue streak”. Choi equates the sky of the crows in a cornfield or a starry night and Van Gogh’s melancholia with Choi’s own poetic logorrhea and sadness. The pomposity of the sentiment is belied by the lack of confidence expressed by the protagonist. Choi sings in an aching voice that gains in intensity over the length of the song, sometimes breaking into falsetto to express the strength of his feelings. Yet because of the musical trappings, Choi’s voice over a martial-beat that becomes dance music through its use of repetition, the seriousness of the song’s concerns never get in the way. Or more precisely, Choi melodramatically takes its subject too seriously and turns it into an operatic cartoon with an affected instrumental backdrop. Kill the wabbit, indeed!
Choi’s a Whitmanian who sings of himself in long lines. He, too, celebrates himself, New York City, the diverse people and occupations of Americans, and the body electric. There are two songs with Whitman’s hometown of Brooklyn in the title (“Hashtag Brooklyn Karaoke Party” and “Brooklyn Superdream”) full of wry observations about the people and places he encounters (“steampunk woman at the butcher store cheese shopping deep in the ghetto”) and his search for love (“heartbroken at the dance floor at the gay bar singing songs about gin and whiskey”) that capture the old courage teacher’s modern sensibility.
Choi also has one track that explicitly addresses the Gotham City’s bohemian values. “Don’t Ever Change Me New York City” concerns the importance of living an authentic existence. That’s why he moved to the Big Apple; not for the money but for its cosmopolitan ethos. He tells his story over a strummed acoustic guitar and presumably a lightly blown ocarina to express his sincerity. The sound of an old video game and a bicycle bell ring in the background to show that while the trappings of his rural youth have changed, he is still the same person (“country simpleton Midwest small town walking archetype, walking amongst the skyscrapers, restless as winter”).
Besides being a rural denizen who has moved to the city, Choi is the son of Korean immigrants and sees America with the double vision of the insider/outsider. The album’s most poignant song is a tribute to growing up with parents who emigrated from a war zone full of scarcity and worked hard to maintain a middle-class, small-town life. Their sacrifices make his (“homemade fast food, burgers on white bread”) seem petty, but the pressure he was under to succeed (“You gotta save every penny and dime. You gotta save every minute and hour”) was intense. Because of circumstances, he never had to suffer the way his parents had, but he could never be comfortable because he knew what his parents had gone through so he could be comfortable. Does he contradict himself? He contains multitudes, as do we all.
Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love is full of small musical moments that can lighten the mood or add depth to a seemingly commonplace topic. For example, “You’ve Got to Feel It” at different moments has resonances of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” and the Beatles’ “Here, There, and Everywhere” that bubble and burst like champagne. That’s part of the magic. These are fables more than stories, and where the line between fabulism and realism exists is purposely smudged. These are songs that not only make you think but make you feel it, baby.