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, was produced by Daniel Smith (Sufjan Stevens, Danielson), and released by Black Rd Records in August 2016. The album garnered critical acclaim, being featured in Magnet, PopMatters, and The Big Takeover, and was one of the most played records on college radio this summer (CMJ).
Time Without Measure depicts the lives of 10 activists who demanded progress and, in return, were demonized by the powers that be. These activists include Fannie Lou Hamer (a black civil rights leader reviled by southern Democrats), Dorothy Day (a Catholic anarchist), and a group of religious 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.”
Such lyrical aims might bring to mind John Darnielle (AKA, the Mountain Goats) or Leonard Cohen. These influences are present, but Time Without Measure is a band effort — 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.