Commoners Choir – Commoners Choir
No Masters – 1 September 2017
In 1996 I purchased a CD titled Anarchy by Chumbawamba. The album sleeve pictured a baby being born and I liked the juxtaposition of the picture and the title of the record as much as the music which was a mixture of beats, shouting, trumpets and surprisingly pure female vocals.
Chumbawamba went on to record ‘Tubthumping’, one of the defining singles of the 90’s and then started to reduce in size and volume until they were essentially a rather good folk acoustic act.
Inevitably the band came to an end, and individual members have followed individual downsized careers, which is where Commoners Choir comes into the picture.
Boff Whalley, songwriter, singer and guitarist with the group, has written the songs for the choir. As might be anticipated these are songs from the left. If you think immigrants are to blame for the current economic crises or the public services waste far too much money or Jeremy Hunt is doing a really good job then it’s probably best that you stay away from this recording and the rest of this review.
Choirs, of course, are popular like never before, blame that Gareth Malone bloke. In many respects the community choir is the perfect vehicle for social commentary, they are collectivist, everyone working together with a common aim. With just voices, the choir is an easily transportable unit that can appear almost anywhere, in fact with Commoners Choir their first appearance was on the top of Kinder Scout. Finally the community choir is usually inclusive, and usually, the musical bar is set quite low, at least initially.
The good news then is that Commoners Choir are actually really good, they sing in tune (always a good sign), and they are crisp and have a good sense of dynamics. According to their own manifesto, they will rehearse until they are brilliant; which they have done and they are.
Ultimately of course, what will distinguish Commoners Choir from other community is their choice of material. Boff Whalley has written, and arranged, 21 songs none of them over 4 minutes long. Topics include the Castleford food riots and the Calder Valley floods, the power of anger and the use of Boris Johnson’s head as a mop. ‘Great big Hole’ links economic stagnation and global warming but despite the subject matter the choir manage to avoid the doom and gloom trap as encapsulated by their closing track which at 01:39 makes its point ‘Get off Your Arse’. It’s true, they really do sing with ‘fire in their bellies and tongues in their cheeks’
Inevitably with 21 tracks, some of them snippets of under a minute, there will be some variability of quality. The odious Jeremy Hunt deserves better than the observation that his name rhymes with a rude word and ‘Song for Woody’ is a nice idea but won’t bear repeated listening.
Where the choir are at their best are with relatively complex arrangements such as ‘Movable Mechanical Type’ and simple, direct emotion such as the moving ‘Three Boats’ which commemorates the loss of lives of asylum seekers in the Mediterranean.
The use of samples and the spoken word are especially effective transforming what could be just a selection of songs into something more resembling a proper cohesive album.
I assume this CD will sell mainly to audiences at live performances, but I also expect that ‘shifting units’ is not the main point here. Even if the choir just brought 50 people together, it would have been worthwhile. I suspect that these songs will form an inspiration for other community choirs who don’t want to sing a medley from ‘Les Miserables’ anymore. This is a project that will grow and grow. In Whalley’s own words ‘a scatter gun of ideas that starts with a low hum of rage and ends with a resounding harmonising hope’.
The choir will continue to entertain, provoke and engage and if you are lucky enough to live near Leeds you can join them as long as you are prepared to be brilliant. Otherwise, they have a great website or better still catch one of their live performances whether it’s at a folk festival, a library or a peat bog.
Order it Here: http://www.commonerschoir.com
Photo Credit Casey Orr