Back in January we featured Philapdelphia’s The Chairman Dances, saying their EP Samantha Says “shows that rock/pop albums can aim as high as fiction in terms of character development”. Indeed, the five-song release packed in far more than the average album, bringing to life the titular Samantha in all of her imperfect, shifting humanity, painting a complex knot of hopes and worries and feelings that’s constantly tangling and unravelling and tangling again.
It is perhaps unsurprising then that the band’s debut full-length Time Without Measure is an album with lofty goals. As the press releases states, the album explores “history and biography, faith and doubt, in unexpected and meaningful ways,” with Eric Krewson and Co. looking to history for inspiration. “What sets Time Without Measure apart — and what makes the album so relevant in 2016 — is its political nature. The album depicts the lives of ten (mostly) activists who demanded progress and, in return, were demonized by the powers that be.”
Opener ‘Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin’ is a snippet from the lives of the pair who created Catholic Worker Movement, a organisation which aimed to provide help for those struck by poverty, as well as protesting (nonviolently) on their behalf. The song finds Day working as a journalist, with Krewson conjuring the dualism of being a normal, humble person (“I wake up each morning in the newsroom that doubles as my bedroom, which doubles as my closet”) while also working toward huge, socially progressive ends.
“I’m up late each evening cleaning the dishes, Tamar at my knee and Peter at the table reading a book or two or three, when he gets to talking. Of leaving this city and taking the worst off, taking them all with us, just over that bending river”
‘Augustine’ finds the saint the bewildered by the names that dream of him, the music brash and confident in a way one is entitled to be when thought of so highly by Calvin and Dylan, while the verses of ‘Fannie Lou Hamer’ has the skippy energy and catchy repetition of a children’s verse. Complete with handclaps and echoed refrain, the track mimics Hamer’s habit of singing hymns with her civil rights group to maintain spirit and morale. And spirit they needed — the song is a reference to her bus trip to Indianola, Mississippi, where she travelled on the urging of Rev. James Bevel in order to register to vote. With the rhythmic chorus, the song is ready to singalong with from the off, and certainly captures the sense of carefree momentum that surely enchanted those brave enough to risk discrimination and death in order to gain what their people deserved.
‘Thérèse’ describes the beginning of the end for Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, who, after going to bed on Good Friday joyous after the Lenten fast, woke to find blood on her handkerchief, a sure sign of the death sentence that was tuberculosis. “I woke up with a pounding in my chest and a ringing in my ears,” Krewson has her say amid the cinematic swells of instrumentation, “you would have thought that I’d protest”. In reality, Thérèse was immensely touched that Christ should speak to her so clearly on the anniversary of his own death, providing the album with an example of capital-F Faith. The following track ‘Jimmy Carter’ is far less sure, finding the former president citing Flannery O’Connor (“It is much harder to believe”) and Paul Tillich (“Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element”) as touchstones in his own struggles. The song is slow and wide and almost peaceful, before growing into a finale not quite transcendental but near enough, as though Carter grows into an understanding of Tillich’s words.
“I have found it’s much harder to do right. Doubt, fear and worry—and unbelief
O what sweet relief I found in Mark 9:23-4. I gave a sigh.”
‘César Chávez’ casts the civil rights activist in a light both typical and not, a man who takes out equity loans and recognises his wife’s favourite clothing who finds himself in the headlines and having visions in his sleep. ‘Kitty Ferguson’ offers progressive views of a different kind, providing yet another spin on the idea of faith by challenging the militant opinions on both sides of the religion/science divide by claiming that the two fields can coexist, striving, as she put it “[to] wrest both science and religion from the dogmatists of scientific atheism and religious fundamentalism”.
‘Catonsville 9 (Thomas and Marjorie)’ focuses on the Melville’s from said organisation, a Catholic couple who fought to bring attention to US involvement in Guatemala and served time after the Nine burned draft files in protest against the Vietnam war. The song finds them happy and relaxed, as though entirely convinced in their actions and beliefs, and finding the prospect of prison less of a burden than acting against their values. As ever, Krewson manages to cultivate a real sense of character, their playful intimacy possibly the biggest symbol of protest against the sanctions of bloodshed and fear peddled by their opposition.
“My wife and I drive to Catonsville, homemade napalm in our laps. Sun soaked and happy, we spill cherry cola on the map. My wife and I talk about the years, philosophy and its limits. Though we’re off to federal prison, there’ll be conjugal visits”
‘Peter Gomes and Nancy Koehn’ is based around a personal remembrance written by Koehn for the preacher and theologian Gomes, speaking of a man who saved her life and those of many others through his elegant insights into religion and life. The song plays as a suitable ode to what sounds like a great man (who Koehn called “a blazing light”, and Krewson “a sign for the living”), but also a meditation on faith, serving as a reminder that any holes in thinking and philosophising can be filled through empathy, compassion and friendship, acts which might just end up becoming your belief itself.
As if that lot was not powerful enough, The Chairman Dances close the album with ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer’, a track about the anti-Nazi dissident who, despite being imprisoned and finally executed, lives on through his book, The Cost of Discipleship, which argues against the commodification of faith. The song finds Bonhoeffer under threat, perhaps from the Gestapo or the hangman or maybe the more general fascist danger, though amidst the violence holds onto his unshakeable trust in something bigger than himself.
“I was up smoking a cigarette when the curtains were thrown open. The night spilling in. And I thought about you, I thought I might see you bathed in light”
Just as with Samantha Says, The Chairman Dances succeed in bringing characters to life in three dimensions, though on Time Without Measure the feat is even more impressive as the roster of figures are not only numerous but also known to history in decidedly superhuman terms. Now more than ever we should remember that activists and political heroes, for all of their spirit and unimaginable resolve, are as prone to doubt and death as anyone, and not half as powerful without our support and belief. Likewise, we’d do well to remember that villains and bigots are human too, flames that, however fierce and bright, will be snuffed out without the oxygen that is our backing. This album is a reminder that belief and faith can save us. It’s just a matter of choosing the right thing in which to invest our energies.
Time Without Measure is out now via Black Rd. Records and you can buy it from the Chairman Dances Bandcamp page, including a rather lovely CD edition.