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Commoner's Choir - Commoner's Choir (No Masters)
We had absolutely no expectations for this album, no preconceptions whatsoever. We're going to come right out with it and say that "The Commoners Choir" is one of the most significant album releases of the past five years. This is an album that has got us excited, enthused, and outright riled up. The arrangements – which are utterly fabulous - twist and turn throughout the songs in such a way that mean you never hear the same thing twice. From the moment we put this CD on in the car we knew it was something special.
Before we even get onto the contents of the songs; we need to talk about the arrangements. Musically, this is an impressive piece of work. The album is filled with fabulous melodies, but also counter melodies. It has intricate sprinklings of vocal landscaping, clever little rounds and harmonies arranged in an untold quantity of vocal layers. It sits familiar snippets of tunes that you're sure you know up against counter melodies that you've never heard, and it sounds glorious. This album is accessible and inclusive. It manages to be political without patronising. It has a defined political agenda whilst maintaining an overriding sense of humour, joy, and hope.
This is the kind of album where you'll find yourself singing along to a song at the top of your lungs; and then – half way through – you'll realise the words that you’re singing… and they hit you like a proverbial tonne of bricks. Yes, this is an album that gets us very, very excited. This is not just a collection of songs, it is a masterful work of art.
As a disclaimer: we're both massive Chumbawamba fans. This is not a Chumbawamba album it is simply a project spearheaded by a single member (Boff Whalley), but it's impossible to review The Commoners Choir without drawing at least some parallels. There's a certain channelling of Chumbawamba through the music. Familiar lyrical phrases like "singing in the dark times" and "a singsong and a scrap" find their way into the songs. Arrangements and melodies have a certain comfortable familiarity, most of the twenty-one tracks are refreshingly short, and there’s a continuity that ties the album together into a cohesive whole.
Most recognisable however is the message delivered through the songs. Boff Whalley has often channelled the voice of the people through the guise of Chumbawamba. But through The Commoners Choir he's not only perfectly channelled the voice of the people, he’s also succeeded in channelling their voices themselves. There's no less than fifty-eight choir members on this album, and they are harmonious and in tune throughout. This is a beautifully orchestrated piece of work.
The album highlights the injustices, the inequalities, and the inadequacies of the current state of the world. The Commoners Choir Manifesto, which existed before there were any choristers or any songs includes their intentions: "we'll be explicitly political and committed to what we sing about…. we'll sing about the world around us, about inequality and unfairness, and about the things that need changing. The words we sing will be angry and clever, but we'll sing them with as much harmony, melody and earworms as we can muster!"
The world around us is not entirely beautiful, and nor are the songs. The opening Angry Song is full of harmonious joy… but the decision to include the sound vomiting into a toilet bowl is indicative of the choir’s commitment to their message. It's not supposed to be a beautiful moment. It's a moment that’s supposed to drag you out of the relaxed daze they've lulled you into and slap you in the face with meaning.
The songs are interspersed with clips from newscasters and presenters, amongst those we recognised were the voices of Chris Packham and Theresa May. The choir is also occasionally supported with just the subtlest of percussion or additional musical arrangement. It's a subtle but highly effective production.
These are songs from the left; but they're sung with a political conviction and openness that makes them feel accessible. It’s not aggressive shoved-down-your-throat songwriting (okay… the Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson songs are possibly a tad aggressive – the inlay reveals the choir themselves argued about the general rights and wrongs of advocating murder in song. but it’s songwriting with the intention of getting you look at the world around you, and then – if you see the injustices – to get off your ass and do something. There's a real power in being able to write a song that expresses an opinion on a subject like driven grouse moorland (The People’s Armada) in a way that's listenable, enjoyable, politically valid… yet doesn't really insist on your allegiance in either way. For me, this is an album that’s a masterclass in how political writing should be done. It's simply highlighting a particular view of the world, delivered with wit and melody.
There's too many tracks to describe them all; but stand outs for me are Robin Hood in Reverse, Mechanical Movable Type and Three Boats which are amongst the most glorious of arrangements. Angry Song, Shelter Song and Get Off Your Arse! were probably the three songs which had the biggest political impact. If I had to single out just one track to listen to, I suppose it would be Robin Hood in Reverse. A song written in response to Bradford’s National Media Museum 'donating' it's incredible photography collection to London's Victoria & Albert Museum – cultural spending totals £69 per head in London but just £4.50 per head in the rest of the country. The choir (uninvited) flash-mobbed the museum’s foyer to sing this song.
Ultimately you need to read and digest the entire inlay to understand the validity and intention of all the songs. The inlay also highlights their commitment to singing songs out in the world. The choir have sung on Kinder Plateau in the Peak District, written songs for the picket lines of junior doctors, sung about broadsides in libraries and about floods from Hebden Bridge...
We'll say it again: what Boff Whalley has done with this hard working and undeniably talented band of choristers in Leeds has produced an album that's one of the most significant releases of the past five years. With luck, the repercussions of this movement will be felt long into the future.
To refer back to their original manifesto: "This will be a choir unlike any other… We'll rehearse until we're brilliant". If a review could end with a standing ovation, this would be a good time to stand up.
Ange Hardy & Rob Swan