When people describe the voice of St. Lenox’s frontman, Andrew Choi, there is very little consensus for an apt comparison: Resemblances have been noted in everyone from Stevie Wonder to Rufus Wainwright. However in the band’s new album, “Ten Hymns From My American Gothic,” Choi’s voice sounds more like that of Chris Stapleton or an American version of Van Morrison. It’s a style of light but gritty singing—with a delivery that sounds like Choi’s forcing out every syllable he sings—that all comes together to reflect his Middle American origins.
Despite how Midwestern much of the album sounds, the focus of “Ten Hymns” is on a somewhat different theme. Choi, the musician/full time lawyer, wrote this album as a birthday present for his Korean immigrant dad’s 70th birthday. The album’s main focus is the immigrant experience, exploring it in a manner somewhat similar to the “Master of None” episode “Parents.” As a whole, “Ten Hymns” functions as a stunning album that explores themes ranging from achieving the american dream to generational differences in privilege between immigrants and their parents.
At its peaks, “Ten Hymns” is a bubbly album with expertly crafted songs like “Fuel America” and “Korea,” combining a second-generation American perspective with the hope and optimism evocative of first-generation immigrants looking for a better life. With lines like “And I’m really gonna make it this year” and “And silk and blue is a cool new look for a hipster dressed up pretty,” Choi conveys a sense of wit and self-deprecation. However, he portrays some truths hidden behind the humor, like the difficult and often near-futile search for success in new places or appropriation of one’s culture.
The instrumentation never overshadows Choi’s voice but instead carries it along with light piano chords and catchy guitar riffs—although the instruments on each song sound widely different from anything that came before. “People from Other Cultures” is one of the finest songs on the album. It stands stark and somber in contrast to the brightness of “Korea,” with a bassline and piano covering much of the background music for “People.” It provides the perfect template for the theme of the song: the disconnect between Choi and his parents, who had vastly different experiences in wartime Korea than he did growing up in the Midwest (“I said it’s different cultures / she’s from a different world”).
This meshing of the instrumentation and the themes of a song is an effect seen for the most part throughout the album. The individual songs do not flow together especially well throughout the album—largely because each song sounds so unique. While this should be a larger flaw of the album, the songs for the most part work astoundingly well as individual pictures of the same narrative.
The album’s only real weak point is the song “The Public School System,” which ironically follows one of the best tracks of the album in “Thurgood Marshall”—a lively song about being inspired by the law that features a great thematic twist at the end. “The Public School System,” on the other hand, is a dull piece that does not fit in thematically or musically with the rest of the album. Choi reminisces about public school education using a series of stories; it opens with the phrase “You’re not better than me, rich kid,” then turns into an unfocused recollection of public school.
Aside from “The Public School System,” “Ten Hymns From My American Gothic” is a stellar album, covering the experience of the children of immigrants from the emotional highs of boundless optimism to cultural disconnect. Its lively, folky feel creates a powerful representation of hope and new identity that makes this album one of the most interesting releases of the year.
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