Let’s face it – we all love some kind of American music. You might hate their politics, their culture, their imperialist tendencies, their foreign policy or their sense of self-importance, but I defy you to look at the following list and tell me that there isn’t a piece of music belonging to one of these American genres that doesn’t move you: blues, jazz, rock, country, soul, swing, funk, hip-hop, rap, psychedelic rock, r&b, disco, metal, gospel, rockabilly, punk. That’s right, each of these genres was either wholly created by American musicians or expanded and furthered by them, and each genre continues to influence the musical sphere. Instead of stagnating, they have evolved since their inception and still remain relevant to contemporary audiences – with the possible exception of swing, disco and gospel. This last is a terrible shame, because much of the modern gospel music that is out there is beautiful and moving, and can act as a panacea to our overstimulated, hyper-saturated, 24/7 times.
Real Midnight is an exceptional example of this. The latest release from Birds of Chicago – a collective centred around singer Allison Russell and songwriter JT Nero – the music contained within Real Midnight is what the band call a “new secular gospel,” drawing upon the influences of the gospel of yesteryear while eschewing any form of proselytising and preaching: think funky acoustic-guitar grooves, hand claps, minimalist drumming, tight harmonies, soulful vocals and earthy lyrics. Their sound, which has been slowly maturing since their first two albums (Birds of Chicago and Live from Space, respectively), has moved into new and transcendental realms on Real Midnight. This is no doubt because of Russell and Nero’s work ethic and developing rapport, but thanks are also due to the contribution of producer Joe Henry (who has worked with such gospel/soul greats as Solomon Burke and Bettye Lavette) and the lightness of touch that he has imparted.
As well, Real Midnight is that rarest of modern things: a proper album. While some of the individual songs are incredible, it is the totality of them that really impresses – the album feels whole and cohesive; it flows with a purpose, moving from gentle country-soul-gospel ballads to urgent and upbeat hip-shakers with a sense of purpose and structure. And what Birds of Chicago never lose sight of on Real Midnight are the true foundations of gospel music: connection, reflection and a sense of being grounded. Its mellow moments are never boring or down; its up-tempo moments are never overbearing or overdone. Instead, it brings about a feeling of calm and peacefulness, and makes the rest of the world quieten down a little. And that alone makes it worth the price of admission.
(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 26/3/2016)