Eyes on the prize

The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir have their feet on the ground and priorities in place
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"One thing about Chicago — it's a no-bullshit city," Elia Einhorn, the maestro behind the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, explains. "It's a blue-collar, working-class city. There's no pretension here." We're sitting in the band's de facto office — a corner booth at the absolutely unpretentious Pick Me Up Café in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood — where Einhorn and bandmate Ethan Adelsman have taken it upon themselves to school this recent San Francisco transplant in the ways of the local music scene.

To say they're worthy teachers is an understatement. The group's self-released 2003 debut, I Bet You Say That to All the Boys, topped many a best-of list that year, won the praise of local critics, and garnered heaps of music industry attention. The album led to shared billings with marquee artists like the Arcade Fire, the Violent Femmes, Spoon, and even San Francisco's Dave Eggers. The obligatory television soundtrack spots followed, with salivating record execs not far behind. Eschewing major labels for its friendly neighborhood indie, Bloodshot, the band continued on its unpretentious way.

Originally recording more than 30 songs for its first Bloodshot full-length, the chamber-punk syndicate ended up with all of nine tracks. But even at a paltry 26 minutes, the album is the most complete I've heard in years. Steeped in Chicago's "no bullshit" tradition, Einhorn's songwriting is all substance. "Most records today are two or three good songs and then filler," the Wales-born songsmith says. "I could put out a double-disc record of fine songs, but fine can be the enemy of the best."

There's no mistaking anything on this album for filler. Opening track "Aspidistra" tumbles with the frenetic energy you'd expect from a song propelled by three guitars. Recounting Einhorn's history of drug addiction, the lyrical meat offers sinister contrast to the upbeat instrumentation. "Then and Not a Moment Before" showcases a similar dichotomy: long-overdue words fired at an absentee father are delivered over exhilarating major chords. Confusing, cathartic, and bordering on musical brilliance — it's clear Einhorn's understanding of songwriting forms, paired with his hard-won wisdom, presents a force to be reckoned with.

Employing the impossibly lonely voice of cellist Ellen O'Hayer, "In Hospital" delivers a gut-twisting account of coping with the death of a loved one. O'Hayer — who moonlights in Bright Eyes — also lends that sad and wispy voice to the sparse "Broken Front Teeth." Built from snapshots of Einhorn's drug-addled past, the tune ends with the line "I knew I was done" but offers no closure. This honesty runs throughout the recording. "Most situations in life aren't just resolved," Einhorn says. "It's about recognizing the sadness. I'm putting it out there to say, 'Look, here's the confusion we're dealing with. Here's recognition that we're all going through this together.'"

As far as uniting the masses goes, the sweeping anthem "Everything You Paid For" does this better than any song I've heard in years. Flanked by the disparate voices of the rest of the Choir, O'Hayer traverses the insecurities burgeoning inside the human condition in Einhorn's ever-poignant narratives.

Fearlessly navigating a world beyond rock-ready love songs, the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir aren't afraid to pluck at frayed and forgotten nerves. Such subjects as parental abandonment, gender identity, and mental illness aren't your typical pop fodder. "People don't want to hear songs about people you love dying," Einhorn says. "They don't want to hear songs about having a crush on the same gender." Chalk it up to that no-bullshit ethos, but finally, here's a band that's working with something real.

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