Artist: Colony House
Album: Only the Lonely
In Brief: I kind of outgrew Steven Curtis Chapman, but his sons’ band turned out to be right up my alley. This is a big, loud, upbeat, and massively catchy pop/rock record – hardly anything new in 2017, yet it feels refreshing due to its commitment to an energetic, live performance-oriented sound.
I was around fifteen or sixteen the first time I heard my first Steven Curtis Chapman song. “The Great Adventure” is now remembered by fans of contemporary Christian music as a classic of its era (the early 90s, already well into Chapman’s career), and it was popular with church-going grownups and a lot of their youth group-aged kids at the time. As I began to follow Chapman’s discography over the next several years, I noticed a pattern on a lot of his records – he’d have these big, fun hit singles like “King of the Jungle”, “Lord of the Dance”, “Dive”, etc. that were designed to pull in a younger crowd and prove he could still be “cool” despite being way older than the target audience. And they were kind of cheesy – that fact gradually dawned on me as I got older – but they also knew their way around a massive pop hook. Then there’d be the quieter, less flashy but more heartfelt, adult contemporary-oriented songs that took up the bulk of his albums, more often than not revealing that any reinvention of his sound promised by a lead single was more of a marketing angle. It made his records a bit inconsistent to listen to, but my perspective on this changed as he got older, and I started to really relate to some of the quieter and supposedly “boring” songs on those albums, to the point where from somewhere around his 2004 record All Things New, I felt like I was outgrowing the big pop/rock anthems that used to be my favorite parts of his records, while only finding the occasional adult contemporary type track that really spoke to me. Aside from the unusually subdued Beauty Will Rise in 2009 that was born out of the heartbreaking loss of his adopted daughter Maria, I haven’t really enjoyed a Steven Curtis Chapman record in well over a decade.
I bring all of this up not because I’m reviewing one of Chapman’s albums, but because his two sons, Caleb Chapman and Will Chapman, are the lead singer and drummer of the band Colony House, which has existed in some form (albeit under different names) since their childhood. Those boys were probably just barely out of diapers back when I started listening to their dad’s music. But their curiosity about popular music – and their parents’ willingness to indulge it – meant that they grew up in an environment that encouraged creativity. At some point, just goofing around in the garage led to playing backup for their dad (including an excellent vocal duet when Caleb guested on Steven’s cover of “Morning Has Broken” a few years back), and eventually the realization that with the addition of guitarist Scott Mills, they could make a serious go of it. I somehow missed the band’s official debut When I Was Younger in 2014, but since then, they’ve added bass player Parke Cottrell and honed in on more a “live band” sound befitting their concert performances, which is proudly shown off on their sophomore album, Only the Lonely. In listening to it, I’ve realized that they’ve brought back the knack for catchy pop hooks that I loved in all of those old SCC songs, but without the baggage of having to shoehorn in an analogy or an Aesop to please Christian radio. It’s just fun rock music, played by people who have clearly spent a lot of time listening to different eras of the genre and who love to emphasize the feeling of being there in the room as a band plays together. Due to a lot of the popular music of the day putting a lot more emphasis on studio wizardry, even in the rock genre, that’s not something we seem to get as much of in 2017 as we used to. There might still be some bits of programming in the background, or bits of studio chatter and synthesized sound bridging a few of the songs, but it’s never the main focus. They can build up an addictive backbeat with a glorious guitar riff riding on top of it, just as easily as they can turn a sudden corner away from it into a slower, jammier, rowdier bridge that adds character to an already likeable song. You won’t mistake then for anything super indie that was actually made in someone’s garage or anything, but it shows that they don’t just run on autopilot once they’ve thought up a good way to start a song, either. It’s a joy just to listen to these guys play.
So, what if you don’t care for the music of Steven Curtis Chapman, or you’re just not into Christian rock in general? Should this band even be on your radar? I was surprised to learn, with the release of this album, that the band was actually getting some mainstream attention via talk show gigs and a headlining tour. I don’t listen to Christian radio any more, and the Christian bookstores I used to frequent have gone the way of the dinosaur, so I can’t tell you whether Colony House is being actively marketed as “Christian music”, But I can say that disregarding the family connection, I don’t hear anything on this record that would make me think they’re seeking out a specifically religious audience. For the most part these are just simple but effective songs about love, life on the road, and wondering what your purpose in life is. It’s only “Christian rock” in the same sense as Switchfoot or Anberlin – their faith informs the songwriting, but it isn’t intended to preach or proselytize, and sometimes it simply asks questions without feeling the need to answer them or deliver a “moral of the story”. There are a few occasions where I can’t deny that the lyrics are a bit cheesy, but cheesy lyrics about love or loneliness tend to go down easier with me than cheesy lyrics about God. And then there are other moments where they’re actually slightly edgy compared to what you’d expect the CCM audience to be comfortable with. (Only the most conservative of listeners in this day and age would be bothered by the use of the word “hell” for emphasis, just as an example.) Nothing here seems designed to push any envelopes, but it feels authentic – like it’s the music the boys wanted to make and not some template of an image that a bunch of studio heads threw together for them. That’s important to me. At this stage in my life – ironically when I’m old enough that all those mellow SCC songs should theoretically be right up my alley – this is actually what I’d rather be hearing when I decide to give a promising young band a shot.
1. Cannot Do This Alone
A burst of guitar feedback and a booming, cymbal-heavy drumbeat open the album in fine fashion. You’ll notice throughout most of the record that Will Chapman’s drums are way up front, which for me adds to the feeling of being there for a live performance. It’s not to the point where it obscures the guitar work or the vocals – everything seems mixed just right and I feel like that’s a hard balance to accomplish with rock music sometimes when a band is trying to push the energy level into the red, as they do on so many of these songs. In terms of the lyrics and the overall structure of this song, it’s pretty straightforward arena-rock fare, with a huge “Whoa” hook designed to get arms waving and people singing along. I love the rock edge on Caleb’s vocals – they set him apart pretty well from his dad, even though you can hear a little bit of the similarity. He’s trying to swallow his pride here and admit that no man is an island, and he pays tribute to his family members and his wife, who keep him honest when he gets too big of a head and tries to take on too much of a burden without them. While this is a theme that relates well to the title track, “Lonely”, I kind of feel like it would have more resonance if it came after that track. Still, it’s a solid opener.
I love the whistling in the background at the end of the previous track, that segues perfectly into the heavy, but bouncy drum beat of this song. There are a few subtle but clever song segues like that throughout the album that remind us the track order was pretty carefully thought through, and it’s not just a succession of interchangeable singles. This track pretty effectively merges the group’s live band ambiance with a syncopated, 80s-influenced pop approach, to the point where the cadence of it almost feels like something Haim would do (think “The Wire”). It’s a pretty simple song of assurance that two lovers will stay together despite their troubles. I’ll admit that I have to take a few points off for the cheesy counting in the pre-chorus, which is probably the one moment on the album where the Chapman boys are gimmicky in the same way that their dad can be when he’s playing to the youth group set. (Plus Feist already did a cutesy song about counting with the exact same title, and that’s really all we need.) But when they get to the chorus, with its shuffling triplet beat and its rollercoaster melody, I can’t deny that I find myself humming along to it hours later.
The title track excels at the sort of slow, but heavy groove that I’d expect from acts like Band of Skulls. Working its way up from a rhythmic, stomp-clap intro to a strong showcase for what the band’s guitarists can do, it’s not quite blues-rock, and not quite stoner rock, but it probably owes a lot to some of the classic rock bands whose work paved the way for those genres, if that makes any sense. The lyrics perfectly sum up the devious trick that depression can play on a person, making them feel like they’re the only person who ever felt that way, and thus no one else could possibly understand. Caleb’s first verse hits the nail on the head: “Is this a heart attack, or did my troubles find a way to paint my heart this black?” Because when you get that deep into the doldrums, and you’re ashamed to really tell people how you’re feeling, it can cause all sorts of weird psychosomatic conditions. (Been there, done that.) Despite the confessional lyrics about cutting oneself off from loved ones who want to help, the song comes across as strong instead of despairing, due to how muscular the band’s approach is. If a man’s gonna confess to needing someone to pull him from the pit of despair, then he might as well have a little fun doing it, I guess.
4. You & I
A bit of studio chatter in which the guys are trying to work out the right beat for this song segues nicely into the actual beat, and then in comes this stabby guitar riff that I can only describe as “instant win”. I mean, if that doesn’t get a crowd pumped up, I don’t know what will. While we’ve got a no-brainer of a radio single on our hands here, I actually admire the band for both setting up this irresistible beat/riff combo and for knowing when to deviate from it and momentarily give us a slower breakdown in the bridge – which leads back into the chorus in a non-sequitur fashion that almost reminds me of something from a more experimental Queen or Beatles album. The lyrics hint at social commentary here – tragic headlines, a divided world that makes discussing them impossible without it blowing up into friendship-terminating arguments. But what it’s really about is cooler heads prevailing and acknowledging that “Maybe the world isn’t crazy/Maybe it’s you & I.” In other words, maybe if we tone down the screaming at each other, we might actually find some sanity in what the other person has to say. It’s nothing profound, but I do appreciate the approaching of fixing yourself before you try to fix others that the band is trying to take here. Plus, the song flat out rocks and it’s got the most unique character out of anything on the album thus far.
5. Where Your Father’s Been
Even when the band cools down and goes into mid-tempo, pop-single mode, they still manage to pack a pretty solid punch in the song’s climax. This one makes you think it’s going in a more electronic direction with the programmed drums and keyboards heard in the beginning of it, but it builds in a fashion similar to classic ballads like U2‘s “With or Without You” or The Police‘s “Every Breath You Take”. It’s almost too much like those songs, to be honest – and that’s the only reason I’m not giving this otherwise excellent song an A. They wear their influences on their sleeves here, and while they’re easily likeable influences, I find myself wanting them to put more of a modern spin on it, and they pretty much coast through on those old 80s rock ballad tropes. Lyrically, this one would seem like a candidate for Christian radio since there’s so much prophetic talk of your father preparing the way for you and learning to follow in his footsteps. Yet it pretty clearly has a double meaning, since the Chapman boys are sons of a famous musician who knows all too well what those long, hard weeks and months spent out on the road away from his loved ones are like. So this one works as either parental advice or spiritual comfort. You can take it whatever way works best for you. Either way, I think it’s legitimately inspirational without resorting to mushiness.
6. You Know It
The band makes a hell of a racket on this one. And yeah, I said “hell”, in pretty much the same way the boys use the word when they tell us “Nashville to San Francisco is a hell of a drive.” Got a problem with that? Then you’re no fun, and you probably won’t even appreciate that the very next line is “But don’t worry, the Lord is good when the road is long.” The goal of this song seems to be pushing each and every element of their sound up to eleven, rocking out as hard as they can to get themselves pumped during night after night of shows when the fatigue of missing their families really starts to get to them. It’s quite effective. If you’re used to the mostly sterile sounds of radio-friendly pop/rock music, you’ll be surprised at how flat-out loud this thing gets. It reminds me of how The Elms sounded when they finally broke out from the Christian music bubble and started making the raucous rock & roll music they really wanted to make, except in Colony House’s case, this is my introduction to the band rather than having to hear them softball it for a few albums first.
This song might be a sequel of sorts to “2:20” on their previous record – I still haven’t listened to that one, so I couldn’t tell you for sure. This one’s in the same mid-tempo vein as “Lonely”, though it’s a bit livelier, easily competing with the preceding track in the loudness department by the time it reaches its full-throated, reverb-laden climax. It’ll shake the rafters, is what I’m saying. But the slower groove that leads up to this has more of a cool sense of detachment to it – once again, the Band of Skulls comparison seems appropriate (particularly when they change up the beat for the mid-song breakdown). And there’s a fun little talkbox interlude at one point that I just adore. Mood seems to win out over meaning in terms of the lyrics here – “Tell me how you feel” is shouted quite a bit, and there’s definitely some tension between two people that they’re hoping to ease by way of this cathartic release. Aside from an amusing moment when Caleb cuts himself short – “I act like this, you act like shhhhh…” – I honestly don’t remember as much about the lyrics as I do about the music when I think back on this one. It could be an instrumental performance, for all I care, and it wouldn’t change how much freaking fun it is to listen to.
8. Was It Me
Will’s going fast and furious on the snare drum as this irresistibly speedy little rocker gets revved up. Meanwhile Caleb’s got just a hint of Arctic Monkeys swagger going on in his vocal approach. It’s a good combo. The band blows through this one so fast and so aggressively that I can only imagine everyone being breathless when it’s done. But it’s also got one of the sunniest, poppiest melodies on the entire record, which is an interesting choice, considering the lyrics which find two people about to go their separate ways, but then reconsidering at the last second, figuring maybe they’d be willing to take some of the blame if it means working things out and staying together. If there’s anything that brings down this otherwise super-fun song a little bit, it’s the call and response of “Was it me?” with the rest of the chorus lyrics, that has the unfortunate side effect of bringing back memories of that obnoxious Shaggy song “It Wasn’t Me”. Completely different genre, of course, and it was probably a coincidence… but just for giggles, listen to the two back-to-back. You can’t un-hear it.
9. This Road
The only disappointing moment on the record is a 30-second interlude that really shouldn’t even be a separate track. It’s really just a bit of background ambiance – there’s a voice echoing in there somewhere, but I can’t make out what it says – that builds up to a moment of screeching feedback that suddenly cuts into the next song. This serves no purpose, but at least it’s short.
10. I Want It All
Some more awesome drum rolls get this song moving, and at two and a half minutes, this is the shortest non-interlude track on the album – pure energy start to finish, just like “Was It Me”. The downside is that this one sounds an awful lot like “Was It Me”, to the point where I get the choruses of the two mixed up. There’s no call-and-response here, but since the lyrics retread territory we’ve already explored regarding the distance between two people (whether literal or metaphorical) and the heartache a man feels as he strives to close that distance, I feel like this is the one song on the album that could stand to be cut. It’s not bad, and it certainly doesn’t disrupt the tracklisting in any way – it’s superficially a lot of fun to listen to. But it does feel a bit like B-side material just because the group has already done everything that they do in this song better elsewhere.
11. Follow Me Down
The chilled-out synth intro here has me expecting something in the vein of M83, but this turns out to be one of the best rock performances on an album chock full of excellent ones. The guitar work is especially sharp here, with a dark but incredibly sharp tone to it, and Caleb’s vocals are also on top form, with more of an edge to them than usual. He’s a man at the end of his rope, further illustrating the need for companionship and moral support discussed in “Lonely” and “Cannot Do This Alone”, as he seems to be on the very brink of sanity, needing someone to pull him back from it. More than just about being a pick-me-up when someone is feeling down, this song seems to ask if that loved one will be brave enough to actually walk with them through the worst of it, which is what sets true compassion apart from merely sending “thoughts and prayers” in the direction of one suffering. I love how well the band balances minor-key moodiness with major-key crowd pleasing here. While there are louder and punchier choruses on the album, the cry for help in this one really sticks with me. This late in a record is normally where we get a lot of filler, so it’s a pretty big deal that this is actually my favorite track thus far. And it pulls off my absolute favorite transition on the entire record, when the final notes from the guitar are overtaken by computerized notes imitating it, gradually sputtering out until they reconfigure into an ascending riff that speeds back up again, leading seamlessly into the riff from the following song.
12. Remembered For
And what a song it is! Just barely overtaking the previous one as my favorite, in fact. But one really needs the other in order to be most effective. “Follow Me Down” is about being in desperate need of a companion through your darkest days; this song is about wanting to be that companion, and wanting to leave a legacy of being someone that broken hearts could lean on for support. “This is what I want to be remembered for/Everything else, you can set it on fire”, Caleb sings confidently in yet another chorus that I can’t get out of my head, with some exhilarating guitar solo moments just to push what was already a guaranteed crowd-pleaser over the edge. It’s practically a mission statement for the band, and sure, we’ve heard similar sentiments on a ton of “Christian rock” records, but the positioning of the song makes it hit harder, because it feels like it’s coming from a place of deep gratitude, for being rescued and wanting to pay that good deed forward. Track order is important, and it’s because these two songs are right near the end of the album that they pack the most punch, I think. At the end of this one, there’s a quiet coda, with the spotlight just on Caleb and a gentle guitar melody, thinking forward to his final days and hoping he’ll be eulogized as a man who loved unconditionally and charged his friends and family to do the same.
13. This Beautiful Life
Ending a larger-than-life rock record with a mellow acoustic track is such a cliché that I didn’t want to like this song at first. However, there’s more to it than just basic chord strumming, and the other guys do add some subtle layering to it by way of gentle keyboards, percussion and backing vocals. Since this is a song about longing for one’s eternal home and trying to understand the meaning of our time spent on Earth, and not wanting that time to go to waste, I’m reminded that they didn’t just tack this on at the end arbitrarily, due to how well the outro to “Remembered For” sets us up for it. It gives the group’s vocal and lyrical talent a little more of a chance to shine, and I can see a track like this making a good encore after the previous track closed out their main set at a live show. But just as I took off a few points for “Where Your Father’s Been” flying a little too close to its influences, I have to wonder here if someone in the band had just come home from a worship service where the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” and Chris Tomlin‘s version of “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” were sung. Because the chorus melody here sounds eerily close to the choruses from both of those songs. Aside from that, it’s a nice reflective thought to close the album on, and you’re not going to mistake this for a worship song (either production-wise or lyrics-wise) at any point, so this won’t bother anyone who isn’t familiar with a lot of CCM music. But if we hear more of the band’s mellow side in the future, I’d prefer a little more originality in the melody department.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Cannot Do This Alone $1
You & I $1.75
Where Your Father’s Been $1
You Know It $1.75
Was It Me $1.50
This Road $0
I Want It All $.75
Follow Me Down $2
Remembered For $2
This Beautiful Life $.75
Caleb Chapman: Lead vocals, guitar
Will Chapman: Drums, percussion
Scott Mills: Guitar, backing vocals
Parke Cottrell: Bass, keyboards, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: