OK Class, let’s begin.
Raise your hand if you can point to Iowa on a map.
Now keep it up if you can name the capital.
Des Moines? Good. Now keep your hand up if you’ve ever driven through Iowa.
Ok now keep it up if you’ve actually been to and spent time in Des Moines.
Really? None of you? Ok what about just met someone from there?
For those of you having a little trouble with your mental image, your mind class should have about 0-1 hands up right now. That’s the reason that you don’t know about Christopher the Conquered. He’s been a musical treasure of Des Moines for years now, but has yet to break it on a national scale. Part of what’s held him back has been his Midwestern home-base, but in the age of the internet, that is becoming less and less relevant.
The main thing that held him back is the fact that he’s never had a recording that came close to capturing his magnetic and commanding live presence. As of Friday, that is no longer the case; Christopher the Conquered (Chris Ford) released the powerful I’m Giving Up On Rock & Roll.
Christopher the Conquered live is equal parts Freddie Mercury, Ben Folds, and a revivalist preacher. Whether he’s leading a full band complete with a horn section, or solo with his piano, Ford pulls people in with feeling and content, and then blows them away with his voice (Nate Ruess, eat your fucking heart out). You know that high you get when you go and see your favorite band? Or go see a great movie you’re SO excited to see? That feeling that usually takes weeks or months of anticipation to develop? Ford does that every show, for everyone that comes to see him, regardless of whether or not you’ve ever heard of him.
But how do you get that on a record? How do you capture that movement, that three-dimensional feeling, and make it work as just sound? Whatever the secret, Ford and producer Patrick Tape Flemming found it. Flemming is a member of another seminal Des Moines rock group, The Poison Control Center, as well as Ford’s partner in their indie/electro side project Gloom Balloon. So perhaps it was Flemming’s familiarity with Ford that allowed him to find a way to trap a tidal wave in a cardboard box.
A tidal wave fits as a pretty good metaphor for this record. It sounds massive; thick and developed. There is serious force behind these tracks, from Ford’s stunning vocal performances, down to the instrumentals and background vocals. Yet the album also holds a pastoral beauty at times. Ford contrasts massive blasts of horns, guitars and drums with reserved and bare vocal/piano arrangements.
Where the metaphor breaks down is in the destructive nature of a tidal wave. I’m Giving Up On Rock & Roll is anything but destructive. For a record with about the most pessimistic title you could have, Ford’s work is shockingly optimistic. While his lyrics pronounce sadness and defeat (just look at the titles – “On My Final Day,” “I Lose It,” “I Guess My Heart’s Out Of Tune Again”), it’s almost impossible to imagine Ford being a sad person. His music has so much humor and happiness in it. So much heart.
Where Ford’s real genius lies is not in his virtuosic vocal talent, nor his legit skills as a song writer, band leader or fiery performer. Rather Ford’s greatest talent is his ability to use his experiences to tap into truths about the human condition, and then relate them in a positive way. Being in Ford’s audience is like being part of a family, with him driving the station wagon and leading the sing-alongs.
If my last two paragraphs are a little too ambiguous for you, just watch the mini-musical Ford made for his single “Everybody Rains.” It is essentially Christopher the Conquered in a 1 minute 54 second nutshell.
First of all, the production on this song is insane. The first minute sets up the crazy layers of vocals, horns, and guitars in the second, and the super tight arrangement keeps it from getting out of control. But the message and tone of the song are the juiciest parts. “Everybody rains, it’s how we deal with pain. You know God invented crying so that we would go on trying.” It’s a song about crying. But not a song about how he’s been left crying, or is tired of crying. It’s a song about how everybody cries, because it’s a natural thing. It’s even an essential thing – crying is the path back to happiness. Crying is a way of letting the pain and sadness out. And the music reflects this, bouncy and joyous. Ford is not pandering to sad and lonely people by giving them sad and lonely music. Instead he says “Hey, everybody feels sad and lonely sometimes. It’s OK!”
Listening to Adele is confirmation for sad people because it illustrates that other sad people exist. It shows that someone, somewhere out there is feeling the same thing. “Everybody Rains” is therapy for these people. It shows that sadness is not an outlier. Everybody feels sad, and on top of that, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Happiness is just around the corner. Where Adele provides commiseration, Christopher the Conquered provides hope.
Shove I’m Giving Up On Rock & Roll into your sad friend’s face and then drag them out for a sunny Saturday in the park. Cry in your bed and then go dance your shoes off. But mostly pay attention when Christopher the Conquered hits the road later this summer. Do yourself the favor and go see him. You’ll feel better afterward.