The Chairman Dances is a bookish indie rock band from Philadelphia (think the Decemberists, Belle and Sebastian, the Mountain Goats). Their full length, Time Without Measure (Black Rd Records), garnered critical acclaim, being featured in Magnet, PopMatters, and The Big Takeover, and was one of the most played records on college radio last summer (CMJ).
Time Without Measure was produced by Daniel Smith (Danielson), the producer and songwriter who helped launch Sufjan Stevens’ career. It’s fitting that Smith should be involved: like Stevens, The Chairman Dances explore history and biography, faith and doubt, in unexpected and meaningful ways. What sets Time Without Measure apart — and what makes the album so relevant — is its political nature. The album depicts the lives of (mostly) activists who demanded progress and, in return, were demonized by the powers that be. These activists include Fannie Lou Hamer (a civil rights leader reviled by southern Democrats), Dorothy Day (a christian anarchist), and a group of protestors dubbed the ‘Catonsville 9’ (who, during the Vietnam-era, broke into a government selective service building and burned draft files — the nine were later apprehended by the FBI.)
Given the political subject matter, you’d expect a punk record. But here The Chairman Dances defy expectation. On its face a political album, the songs are anything but political. Instead, they deal with the protagonists themselves, their fears, anxieties, moments of despair — but also their small victories, their sense of humor. As the UK blog Wake the Deaf writes, with The Chairman Dances, there are no happy or sad songs; rather, every song has “everything at once.” And if art is to “represent life then surely that’s the only way to go.”
More variegated than most singer songwriter fare, the album is not content to stay in any one mood for very long. Here, you get the smart, sing-along indie pop of “Fannie Lou Hamer” and “Dorothy Day,” both of which seem to channel the Magnetic Fields, or maybe Elvis Costello & the Attractions. Then there’s the driving, Yo La Tengo-esque rock of “Augustine” and “Cesar Chavez.” And, showcasing the group’s versatility, we find “Therese,” “Jimmy Carter,” and “Kitty Ferguson,” all of which use a lush palette reminiscent of Pet Sounds or Tortoise, and whose original musical forms show that rock can still push boundaries, still exhilarate.
The result is an impressive collage — a musically rich record that speaks of and to a turbulent era. An era that is fascinating and brilliant and downright terrifying. The Chairman Dances has its finger on the pulse of the nation. Time Without Measure is our soundtrack.