"It's a Sunday morning album," says the Chimps' John Krane of Play No Evil, the group's first studio effort.
Pressed on exactly what that means, he explains, "To me, it's melancholy without being depressing — but there's some, like, bittersweet happy songs. It's something that'll mean something different to you every time you listen to it. If you're listening to it on a Sunday morning, you've got time to pick apart the lyrics and really dive into it."
Bandmate Jesse Irwin explains the concept in his own illustrative way: "On a Sunday morning you've got nowhere to go. You get up, you're frying some eggs. You can fully listen to an album. You're not doing anything on a Sunday morning, usually, that captures your full attention; it's on while you're picking up your house and you're making coffee."
He finishes concisely: "It's an introspective time of the week, and this is an introspective album."
The Chimps, a trio of longtime St. Louis-area singer-songwriters made up of Krane and Irwin on vocals and guitar, along with Dave Werner on vocals and bass, released Play No Evil on March 12 (a Sunday, incidentally) to little fanfare, which isn't really surprising considering the lack of promotion or build-up for the album's debut.
Despite the unceremonious nature of the album's release, it's apparent upon first listen that an enormous amount of intellectual, emotional and logistical effort went into its creation. The ten-track album features meticulously rehearsed three-part harmonies, consistently good (and occasionally masterful) songwriting, and thoughtful arrangements featuring a long list of area musicians. (Guitarist Nick Gusman and drummer Daniel Moody of Moon Glampers, violinist/violist Brian Seyle of the Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra, and keyboardist Nathan Jatcko of John Henry and the Engine all make appearances, among others.)
The impressive nature of Play No Evil — especially considering that it's the group's first release — owes much to the group's uncommon approach to productivity as a band. The Chimps put together a unique set for each live performance, composed of carefully arranged covers alongside a selection of songs by each of the trio's three members. The group rarely plays the same song live twice.
"With the Chimps, we practice so much more than we play," Irwin explains. "There's so little room to make a mistake. All the vocals, all the parts, are so finely tuned — it's so perishable that we have to practice a lot. We might only play three or four shows in an entire year with the Chimps, but we're practicing weekly."
The album opens with "Hagerty," a heart-wrenching, bittersweet elegy written by Werner about the death of friend and fellow songwriter David Hagerty. The song sets the stage for what's in store throughout the rest of the album, with Werner's simple yet profoundly emotive lyrics: "Grown men were crying like children that day / And no one could think of the right thing to say / The years have gone by and I feel the same way / Like we buried our David this morning."
While "Hagerty" may be at the extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to emotional weight, every song on the album is unabashedly personal, dealing not in hypotheticals or overwrought imaginings of invented scenarios, but rather lived — and thoroughly contemplated — experiences.
"We aren't trying to do this to be a commercial success, we're doing this to make art — the best art we can, period," Irwin says.
He credits some of the group's ability to create a project so deeply personal to the uniquely laidback nature of St. Louis' musical culture. "This isn't a city where people are super-competitive trying to get a record deal or be more popular than the other person. You can be sincere here. None of us is paying $1,500 for a studio apartment. It isn't a rat race, musically. We're just able to do the work we want to do at our own pace."
Another factor contributing to the intimate nature of the songs is the way in which Krane, Irwin and Werner went about delegating — or rather, not delegating — the duties of arrangement and personnel selection.
"The additional musicians that are on [the album] were — I don't think there's an exception to this — they were all chosen by whoever wrote the song," Irwin says. "It was kind of up to whoever wrote the song to choose the arrangement." The way he tells it, it was simply the most intuitive choice: "It's all stuff that's been in your head since you wrote the song."
Krane expands on the idea, saying, "If we're playing a Jesse song, it's clearly a Jesse song; if we're playing a Dave song, it's clearly a Dave song — and not just in who's singing it, but in the lyrics, the sound of it."
Sure enough, as the album plays on, three distinct personalities begin to emerge. Songs written by Werner, the eldest of the group by more than two decades, make up half of the album's ten tracks. Werner's lyrics consistently center on themes related to aging — loss in "Hagerty," missed opportunities in "Wes," the immutability of change in "Superman" — and his arrangements often take on a melancholy, reflective mood. Alternatively, the two songs on Play No Evil penned by Irwin share the theme of a young but committed relationship — "My Eyes Rest Easy On You" is an expertly crafted love song, while "Connecticut Street" is a story of temptation and the struggle against it. Krane is the album's wildcard, showing an offbeat but charming wit with "Troubleshooting" — in which he likens himself to a malfunctioning computer — and an uncanny knack for turning a scene into a story in "Very Bad Thing."
While the individual personalities of the Chimps' members are on full display throughout Play No Evil, the end product still manages to come together as a thoroughly cohesive effort that shows off some of the best of what the city's singer-songwriter scene has to offer. You'll probably never find yourself putting this album on while you're heading to a party, hanging out with friends or even trying to get some work done, but if you find yourself with 45 minutes or so to really listen to a collection of songs — on a Sunday morning, perhaps — Play No Evil is definitely worth the attention.
"A Sunday morning album is what I wanted to make — that's a perfect description for it," Irwin says.
He follows, proudly, "That's what we got."