Music Review – 'The Brighton & Hove Gay Men's Chorus'

Posted on: 21 November 2011 by Alexander Hay

An inoffensive excursion into cover versions, but are we listening for the right reasons, and when does identity become a barrier to our sense of self?

Preaching to the choir - but does it matter?How do you review an album by a chorus? Apart from sympathising about the inevitably cramped tour bus (there are 30 of them!), there's not much really to say about a medium that has made little contribution to music since its straw-hatted relation “Barbershop” went out of fashion. A review that went along the lines of 'OK but uninspired' says little, but what really stands out is the nature of the chorus, which is also the problem, but more on that later.

In any case, the Brighton & Hove Gay Men's Chorus is a talented and melodic bunch who can sing very well. Unfortunately, all they seem to like doing is really bland covers of unlikely songs.

Take, for example, track 4, a bowdlerised, sterilised rendition of 'Hurt', first performed with Generation X ennui by Nine Inch Nails, only to be blasted into the stratosphere by Johnny Cash's devastating cover. Sadly, the BHGMC drags that song back to Terra Firma and makes it live in a rabbit hutch, all the melodrama and power tidied away.

Or Heroes, which required a preening musical satyr like David Bowie to perform, but which instead gets a safe, well-behaved vibe to it, invoking all the rock stadium charisma of Bob-A-Job week.

Or Radiohead's 'No Surprises', its eerie presence and deep, mournful depths smoothed away in a single choral harmony.

That's the problem with choruses. By definition, there is no individual focus, and the point behind most great rock songs is that they involve either one individual or several doing their own thing and it all coming together on the mixing desk. This is the complete opposite, and so none of the grit around which musical pearls grow is kept in. (Wouldn't it be fun if they did a Carcass cover though?)

The other big problem with the BHGMC has is its very identity. Were they signed for being being a good chorus? A gay chorus? A good and gay chorus? By engaging in identity politics, the chorus becomes entrapped by it. If your sense of being is rooted in a very real history of otherness and oppression, then by definition, that will be difficult to get away from. But there is also the risk of always being a 'special case', rising to prominence not because of individual merit but as a result of the very circumstances that alienated you to begin with. Gangster Rap is another excellent example, if you'll pardon the contrast, so bound to being marginalised that it offers no way out from those margins.

In other words, the ultimate success of any minority movement is to render itself redundant, to have the notion of otherness simply not matter. You can't do that and celebrate your alienation at the same time. Put simply, the Brighton & Hove Straight Men's Chorus doesn't have the same ring to it.

There's also a complacency at the heart of the conceit. It's easy to celebrate being gay in Brighton & Hove, but the UK has far less LBGT-friendly places than those shockingly middle class environs. Even London isn't always a safe place to openly hold the hand of your partner. The 'specialness' of the chorus is nothing more than the privilege of mundanity. In an ideal world, no one would care, and in Brighton, they already don't.

And that brings us to the real lesson of this album. Strip away our class, our race, our sexuality and our time and place, and what do we have? In the BHGMC's case, it's a superficially pleasing album full of inoffensively mediocre songs.

ahay@olderiswiser.com

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Alexander Hay

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