By Max Johnson
Chris Ford’s main musical project, Christopher the Conquered, is perhaps the most quintessential “Iowa” band right now. I don’t mean that as a description of a particular sound or style. Just look at the songs on their latest album “Christopher the Conquered and the Black Gold Brass Band Decide the Fate of a Good Man.” You’ll find the left and right politics of a swing state, the hardworking ethic that Iowa is known for, and most importantly, you’ll see something brilliant and beautiful that has been criminally overlooked.
It’s important to know, before listening to the record, that Chris Ford and his band never truly “decide the fate of a good man.” Throughout the eight songs on the album, instead, they come to terms with the fact that there are no good men, there is no fate, and they can decide nothing.
Chris Ford’s songwriting is given center-stage in the album and for good reason. His Daniel-Johnston-casualness-meets-Leonard-Cohen-severity style is powerful, and his Randy Newman delivery alone is enough to guarantee a great listen. And much like Newman, Ford seems to take a great deal of pleasure in playing with clichés. The phrase “life is not easy” pops up a couple of times on the lyric sheet, and the opening lines from “10,000 People” could have been cribbed from a self-righteous speech by a politician, pastor, or parent. But these clichés are setup to be completely deconstructed – the aforementioned “10,000 People” continues on to list the sort of real, everyday problems that could get someone so down that they’d believe in it’s initial cliché.
Yet, there is a whole other element at work here and it’s called The Black Gold Brass Band. Again, it’s tempting to see their role as a sort of commentary on clichéd, easy-going 70s FM jazz. If this was the intention, they do a great job of it. For every almost-too-perfect horn solo at the bridge of a song, the Brass takes an opportunity to just go for broke later. Like on the opening track, “Free To Try (But Not Always to Do)”, a song structured around three separate horn breakdowns. The first containing just a few slow and soft notes to open the song. The second, a free-wheeling sax solo. And the third, multi-tracked muted trumpets that obscure Ford’s yelling at the end as the song descends into a fun, jammy, party vibe.
Indeed, the expert horn work here de-categorizes this album in such a way that critics and listeners will have a hard time figuring out exactly what to call the genre they’re all working with, but again, that’s the charm, and the risk, of being such a quintessentially “Iowa” band. There’s just so much talent packed into these eight songs, so much attention and so much care, that it’s almost impossible to not discover something new upon every listen. Yet listening to this album, one thing is abundantly clear – Christopher the Conquered is Iowa Pop.