Black Rd Records / 2016
The Chairman Dances' new record dropped just a couple weeks before the recent, high-profile canonization of Mother Teresa by the Roman Catholic Church - an interesting coincidence because with Time Without Measure, the Philly five-piece have mounted something not unlike a canonization. Frontman Eric Krewson calls it a "book of saints", and all ten songs live up to the description, remembering a diverse collection of faithful figures from the past, though with a particular focus on activists and political dissidents from the last century or so.
Time Without Measure is explicitly dedicated to disciples of Christ, but it becomes clear just a few seconds in who else Eric Krewson is a disciple of: John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, whose influence hovers over the album like the Spirit over the waters. Krewson's voice is a near-doppelgänger to the invincibly nasal Darnielle, but the similarities in songcraft between the two are just as uncanny. Krewson shares Darnielle's hyperliterate nerdery (the record is strewn with references and winking callouts), but also, and more importantly, he shares a talent for left-field biographical snapshots that bring historical figures to startling, immediate life. For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's song visualizes the German pastor huddled fetally on the floor when the Gestapo finally smash his windows and drag him off to prison, and the buoyant, tambourine-and-handclap-spiked "Fannie Lou Hamer" has her belting out hymns on the bus ride that galvanized her as a civil rights leader.
Time Without Measure commemorates a wide variety of saints, from the no-brainers ("Augustine") to lesser-known inclusions that might necessitate a little research ("Peter Gomes and Nancy Koehn", which adapts a eulogy for Harvard's idiosyncratic and beloved campus minister). The Chairman Dances' sonic palette is just as eclectic, drawing from all over the indie rock spectrum: "Augustine" is a gloriously catchy piece of Yo La Tengo-esque garage pop, while "Peter Gomes"'s crashing, cathartic builds make it one of the record's most indelible tracks.
Of course, Christian sainthood has always been bound up, almost inextricably, with death. "Thérèse" paints a grisly but tender portrait of Saint Thérèse of Liseaux as she wakes in the middle of the night to vomit "a shower of roses" (blood) onto her already-drenched sheets. Depressive and resigned to the tuberculosis that eventually takes her at age 24, Krewson softly sings for her, "You would have thought that I'd protest..."
Resolve in the face of an grim fate is the theme of "Catonsville 9", too. Memorializing an iconic Vietnam protest led by Father Daniel Berrigan involving torched draft records, the cut is a leisurely duet that has husband and wife Thomas and Marjorie Melville contemplating the prison time they will surely serve - apart from each other - for their crime. Yet they hold on to their convictions, and their napalm, taking bemused comfort in the fact that at least "there'll be conjugal visits."
In the middle of Time Without Measure is "Jimmy Carter". Though it has ostensibly little to do with the former US president, it includes a nod to that famous Flannery O'Connor quote about how true faith intensifies rather than numbs life's pain: “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe." That's as good a definition of a saint as any other: someone who embraces the cross, knowing all too well that it's no electric blanket. And for those trying to do the same today, it's great to have a record like this one by The Chairman Dances - a reminder of what that embrace looks like when it's done really, really well.