Fire Note Says: Singer and guitarist with The Choir, and side bands Lost Dogs and Kerosene Halo, strikes off for a more personal solo album, backed by friends from Jars of Clay and Sixpence NTR.
Album Review: Back in 2016, Derri Daugherty, the lead vocalist and guitarist in The Choir, who just released a new album, Bloodshot, at the beginning of the month, ran a kickstarter campaign for a solo album this album. But, back then in ’16, as he was heading out on tour with Kerosene Halo, a folk/rock duo that also features Michael Roe of the band The 77’s, Daugherty released another solo project, one he told me he hastily produced in the studio behind the home of his ailing, elderly father in So. California, where he had moved to care for his Dad. He clarified that Hush Sorrow was not the album promised in his fan-funding campaign, but was something he’d put together in the Neverland studio where early Choir efforts had been recorded, just to prove he could. That album’s a lovely nugget for fans who’ve loved Derri’s guitar tones and voice, and he does a lovely cover of The Call song, “I Still Believe,” and a couple ambient instrumentals.
So given that history, plus his work off and on with Lost Dogs, an alt-country, roots music band, no one knew for sure what a well-produced solo album from Daugherty would sound like, a Choir record, a Dogs or Kerosene Halo off-shoot, more ambient guitar? Smartly, Daugherty appears to have split the difference, offering something for everyone, but defining his own unique approach with a singer/songwriter set that carves out a space of its own, with warm song choices, crisp production values, and backed by lots of old friends, including a string section that gives his first “real” solo effort a distinction from all the other projects and music identities he’s tried on over a long and noteworthy career.
Opening with the title track, “The Color of Dreams,” gives us an finger-picked acoustic guitar, a crying violin, and then Derri’s utterly remarkable singing voice, in storytelling mode, a song of loneliness and longing, the remembrance of one who got away. Written with Hindalong, and supported by a string arrangement by Matt Slocum (of Sixpence NTR) and David Davidson’s violin, it does not sound like something that would fit on a Choir album. But it’s followed by a punchy up-tempo number, “Unhypnotized,” which was also written with Hindalong who plays drums, but to add a unique flavor Daugherty turned over lead duties to Stephen Mason on lap steel, who along with Charlie Lowell on keys comes from the band, Jars of Clay. It’s the one obvious track that sounds like it might fit on a Choir album, with its lyric about we are all conditioned to see the world through one lens from which we draw conclusions that may be incomplete and mistaken, because “I heard the devil sing a gospel hymn/I saw an angel shooting heroin.”
One of the most personal songs comes next, “Your Chair,” a folk/pop song about Daughterty’s Dad’s last days, and the way he sat and listened to his Dad’s war stories, and how he became a traveling Pentecostal preacher with “a pretty little red head who sang like a bird” for a wife, and a child’s devotion to a beloved parent. The strings are back, as are the Jars guys, and Daugherty is joined on the chorus by Leigh Nash, vocalist with 6p on harmony. It’s funny, Phil Madeira wrote a song about Dougherty’s fathers tattoos called “Grandpa’s Skin,” which Kerosene Halo recorded on their first album, which makes two pretty great songs celebrating this man’s life, and most of us haven’t even got one song written about us. Both songs were written while he was still alive, but since his passing they make a fitting epitaph.
While some things here feel deeply personal, often the songs connect at a more universal level. “New Orleans” is about a couple flirting in a bar during Mardi Gras, while and Eagles cover-band plays, before returning to daily life and longing for the possibility of a reunion. While two songs with contributions by Maria Finch Chandler, “I Want You to Be” and “Baby Breathe,” the first like the narrative arc in The Choir’s “Bloodshot,” finds a couple in love but coming apart due to failed expectations, while the second brings back Nash on a wistful tune that offers the possibility of saying “yes, to reckless love, no to compromise,” turning one toward the new day as they “embrace the mystery.”
Not only is Daugherty supported by Hindalong as co-writer and producer, and friends from both Sixpence and Jars, but Dan Michaels shows up playing sax on a few tracks, and he even sings one of Hindalong’s songs that showed up on “Bloodshot,” “We’ve Got the Moon,” which gets a complete make-over here. I didn’t really notice that that was the one song where Hindalong sang lead on The Choir album, so that Daugherty’s vocal here remains distinguished unto its self.
With ten songs devoted to Daugherty’s singer/songwriter inclinations, the additional six ambient instrumentals feel much like a bonus, exhibiting the spacey Cocteau Twin influenced, effected guitar sounds that seem to capture much of Daugherty’s imagination. These are produced by Jeff Elbel, who plays bass and piano, and the songs themselves are shaped around the atmospheric guitar sounds, with additions by Slocum on cello and violin. Although I sometimes listen to “Echoes” on late nights on NPR, I can’t offer a critical opinion about the quality of these ambient sounds, except to say they make me sleepy.
It’s a happy surprise that both the new Choir album and this solo outing from Daugherty have arrived in the same month. Which, knowing these guys, is probably an accident, but still hearing Daugherty’s distinctive and utterly lovely singing voice in both settings provides an interesting comparison even though both Hindalong and Michaels appear here, and the connection with Mason and Lowell, Slocum and Nash, is a more than pleasant surprise. Daugherty’s solo work on The Color of Dreams, apart from his primary band and albums with Halo and Dogs, has it’s own flavor, one marked by a touch of sentimentality, a warming sense of longing and hopefulness, a calming sense of compassion that suggest care if not satisfaction.
Key Tracks: “Unhypnotized” / “We’ve Got the Moon” / “The Chair”
Artists With Similar Fire: Sixpence None the Richer / Jars of Clay / Lost Dogs/Kerosene Halo
Derri Daugherty Website
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb