That I can't quite think of which genre the music of St. Lenox fits into makes my job here harder. It makes it harder for me to trot out any lazy reference point in describing the genius of Ten Hymns From My American Gothic: A Gift For My Father In Honor Of His 70th Year, out Friday via Anyway Records.
And, let's be honest: call this outsider music, or even gimmicky (due to Andrew Choi's unlearned and unorthodox delivery), but there is simply no way to deny the visceral impact of stream-of-consciousness opener "Fuel America". The effect is an enriching one, especially so in this year of such ugliness from the Trumps of the world. And that the words are being sung by a Korean-American man about the experiences of his own father in emigrating to this country makes things a bit more poignant. This is big, beautiful, important music and I couldn't help but be profoundly moved, even as the indie fan inside me struggled to come to grips with what exactly this music is. Still, when Choi sings about going to California to see the "end of the universe", or words to that effect, I was gladly along for the ride.
Similarly, the transcendent "Thurgood Marshall" serves as a sort of anthem for those who believe in what the American Dream remains for so many. And while that sounds incredibly trite, even naive, Choi has struck here at something simple and direct about the experience of coming to this country to thrive and taste great opportunities. I will admit that I am not quite sure if on paper it works, but when Choi sings the tune and the lyrics just tumble past you in a rush of break-beat Aaron Copland-isms, the effect is one of the most moving moments in my listening life this year.
Touching on some unpleasant truths in this great country, Choi brings a great deal of wit to the spry "Conspiracy Theories" and when he tells the unnamed kook to go out and "have a beer now", I laughed a bit. This is confident, fun music unlike anything else you're enjoying these days. Similarly, he manages to carefully and poignantly evoke both the country of his parents ("Korea") and the somewhat difficult transition to being American ("People From Other Cultures"). Choi is doing so much here that it's easy to sort of overlook what's on offer. Simultaneously coming to grips with a generational gap and a cultural one, Choi is so deft here that I wish more performers could pull this sort of material off. This is important music but it's not pretentious music and that makes all the difference as far as I'm concerned.
On the achingly beautiful "What I Think About When You Say South Korea", Choi subtly addresses what he imagines his father thinks of the journey from Korea to America. The effect, over simple Brian Wilson-esque chords and sleighbells, and with a brief bit of a hook that echoes "Crazy Love" by Van Morrison, is a tremendous one and I'd venture to say that I'm not going to hear a more moving song this year. Ten Hymns From My American Gothic: A Gift For My Father In Honor Of His 70th Year closes on the upbeat, proto-gospel-infused "When I Return", the note of triumph in this very American record.
Stunningly direct in spots, Ten Hymns From My American Gothic: A Gift For My Father In Honor Of His 70th Year by St. Lenox is the very rarest sort of album, one that defies so many easy categorizations. And, ultimately, this is a record that surprises and challenges a listener while offering some big, big emotional moments. Uniquely American in outlook, Choi's material here is stunning and necessary, all the more so as so many become so disillusioned in what the American experience offers, or the way in which it's pursued.