bandThe dichotomy between artist and the art is often easily reconciled by the public. In music, artists of all religious persuasions exist, yet their choice of faith doesn’t negatively affect their music; it may inform their art, but they’re never called on the carpet for it. Bruce Springsteen, for example, was born a Roman Catholic, and aspects of his religion can be found in his music (I certainly hear it in Nebraska), but it doesn’t dominate its description: Springsteen is not a “Catholic rock star,” and you probably wouldn’t immediately make the association. George Harrison, on the other hand, went deep into Hindu spiritualism, which appeared blatantly in his work. Still, the public accepted it. (Former Beatles always get the benefit of the doubt.)

Woe to you, then, if you were considered “Christian Rock” from the 1970s to the early 1990s. The public already had it in for you, fearing proselytizing disguised as rocking, and they weren’t entirely wrong in the assumption: There were plenty of bands that felt more comfortable rewriting scriptures with a backbeat than writing from the heart and letting the example be their ministry. A lot of good music got lost in the process, and a lot of bands – candidates with the chops to compete in the secular market – wound up disenfranchised on both sides of the divide: too pious for the one, and too loud for the other.

Take, for instance, the Choir. They arrived in the early 80s as Youth Choir, but changed their name after a couple of releases. I imagine someone picking up an album way back when, expecting to hear an actual youth choir, only to get very jangly modern rock from vocalist/guitarist Derri Daugherty and lyricist/drummer Steve Hindalong. That shock probably prompted them to become simply the Choir and, oddly enough, also informed their musical direction: They literally chose not to “preach to the choir,” instead writing songs about their families, aspirations and, indeed, doubts, but with this different perspective. They saved their praise-oriented side for their alter-ego project, At the Foot of the Cross.

Circle Slide

Of course, when you purposefully make these distinctions, you disturb people. Those who were used to buying the Choir’s CDs at Christian bookstores accused them of going soft for mainstream appeal. On close examination, Circle Slide, their album co-distributed by Epic Records and Word, hadn’t changed direction at all. They were still a rock band with faith, only now their associations made them suspect. It made it hard to get tunes like “A Sentimental Song” to the public, and the album died on the vine. “A Sentimental Song” is simply a well-made love song, full of the textured, reverb-drenched guitar Daugherty favors. Hindalong’s technical, yet groove-conscious drumming and cymbal work give the tune a lively energy rather than simply providing a spine. “Hide with me tonight / Love endures the weather (whether) / Let the rain make everything new.” Keyboardist/wind instrumentalist Dan Michaels adds extra feel to the album with his MIDI-controlled Lyricon.

kisserkiller

The writing was on the wall after Circle Slide‘s inevitable failure. The group walked away from Word and their co-distribution deal dissolved. They released Kissers And Killers as an independent release, with a goal of reaching the mainstream. With the end of ’80s shimmer and the beginning of ’90s distortion, the band was ready to rough things up. The title cut clearly demonstrates the shift, as do “Amazing” and “Gripped,” two tunes about love, both positive and negative. They weren’t backsliding, as the lyrics to “Let The Sky Fall” and “Grace” would attest. Yet in this new position of being their own bosses, musical freedoms came to the fore. Kissers and Killers had its own ballad, much in the vein of “A Sentimental Song,” but the language is quite different. The chorus of “Love Your Mind” crunches right alongside lines like “Baby I love your mind, and I want your touch, and I need your love.” Mood pop had fully been supplanted by full-blooded rock. Daugherty’s former declaration that Hüsker Dü would prove to be one of the most influential bands in rock was coming true in their own work.

Kissers and Killers would land the Choir back on a Christian label, albeit one with a wider vision: REX Records would bring hardcore thrash, industrial and Sixpence None the Richer to the Christian market and the world. Ultimately, though, REX went out of business, as did the band’s next label, Tattoo Records. Subsequent albums were released via Michaels’s own Galaxy 21 imprint, up to 2005’s O How the Mighty Have Fallen.

The 2000s have been kind to CCM (Christian Contemporary Music), as major labels like EMI and Warner snapped up the Sparrow and Word labels and began active promotion in mainstream markets. Suddenly, Lifehouse, P.O.D., and Switchfoot are racking up hits. Brian Littrell of the Backstreet Boys released a solo Christian disc. The boundaries are broken, although it’s now too late for some of the genre’s pioneers.

The divide between artist and art is ultimately defined — often unfairly — by the marketplace and the companies that spin it. One has to speculate what might have been if, knowing what the future would bring, Epic would have given the Choir a fighting chance.

Circle Slide at Amazon.com