It would be easy to dismiss The Silver Lake Chorus as something of a novelty act. A twenty-strong group of LA singers performing tracks by various indie luminaries – Bon Iver, Flaming Lips, Death Cab For Cutie – might sound like a whole string of car advertisements waiting to happen or the soundtrack to the coffee shop from hell, but scratch the surface and it soon becomes apparent that this is no gimmick. The group (incredibly proficient classically trained vocalists) has been together since 2010, and first met to perform covers of existing material . A small but crucial twist occurred when Australian singer-songwriter Ben Lee joined up to take on production duties, bringing with him some high-calibre music industry connections.
Lee’s vision was to have the Chorus perform newly composed songs by seasoned songwriters rather than covers of existing songs. This decision proved pivotal – the compositions here exude a freshness and a relevance that rearranged versions of indie standards simply couldn’t match. They kick off their self-titled debut with the Bon Iver contribution, From The Snow-Tipped Hills. It sounds wonderful and ageless, glassy and serene, and it gives free rein to the harmonic possibilities of a cappella choral singing.
But it’s not all about the human voice. Tegan and Sara’s Hold Up For is a simple folk-pop song – plucked strings and fluid double bass – but is an unexpected highlight. The first real surprise comes courtesy of The Bird And The Bee, whose offering Break It Down is glitchy electro-chamber-pop anchored by an irresistible melody, like a sixties girl-group produced by a futuristic Sufjan Stevens.
Heavy Star Moving, the Flaming Lips‘ track, is not the most immediate, but repeated listens reveal a depth of production and arrangement that ends up sounding like a twentieth century update of Peter Knight and Tony Clarke’s work for the Moody Blues. Another high point is Seattle rockers The Long Winters‘ Same Song, an effective male/female vocal interchange with a gospel structure and some surprisingly bullish production and electronics.
On a gentler note Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie) donates Nervous Soul, which, while one of the more obvious choices for this sort of venture, is also one of the most structurally complex songs here. The arrangement more than does it justice, exposing a frail, lacy beauty in a songwriter already famous for the heartbreaking fragility of his lyrics. And then there is Sia‘s collaboration with cellist Oliver Kraus, Salted Wounds, a song whose slightly corny motivational lyrics are cushioned somewhat by the song’s beautifully airy arrangement. Ben Lee’s own contribution, Overboard, takes the positive lyrical theme and runs with it, bolstered by a chorus that swells delightfully.
Often an album’s most ostensibly simple songs are its most surprising and satisfying. Such is the case here, with Home Come Home, composed by two of the band’s own members, Heather Ogilvy and Michael B. Wells. At first it seems like a mere a cappella interlude, but that sort of description sells it short – it is quite mesmerising in its atmosphere, the accumulation of voices and repetition of phrases bearing it along like some dreamy kind of sea shanty.
The most upbeat track on an album that is the very definition of uplifting is Wreckage by AC Newman, otherwise known as the New Pornographers. It is perhaps as close to a regular radio-friendly indie track as TSLC gets, but its stop-start chorus showcases the group’s vocal gymnastics. And if you thought things were getting a bit too happy-clappy, an Aimee Mann‘s piano-driven Easy To Die, closes things on a deliciously dark note.
When large choirs take on pop songs the results often tend to err on the side of over the top cultishness – see the Polyphonic Spree can be guilty of this – or po-faced neoclassicism but the Silver Lake Chorus keep it simple. The emphasis for the most part is on the poppier aspects of the tunes, brought into focus by the immense individual and collective talents of the performers. And of course there is the material – some truly top drawer songs, made to measure, by some of the finest songwriters around – which makes this one of the most unexpectedly contemporary-sounding records you are likely this year.
The Silver Lake Chorus is Out Now