The phrase "concept album" sometimes elicits sneers from those who associate it with the most excessive and bombastic tendencies of progressive rock.
Gordon Robertson, frontman of local folk/pop/rock band the Damn Choir, feels differently.
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The Damn Choir (with the Hemmingbirds)What: The Damn Choir headlines a benefit concert for New Leash on Life, a Chicago group that finds homes for shelter dogs.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, May 29
Where: The Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, beatkitchen.com
Tickets: $15 in advance, $20 on the day of the show
"I have a hard time writing unless I have some kind of concept to unite everything," he said during a recent phone interview. "The concept is what fuels everything. I'm searching for that now, for our next record."
The current album by the Damn Choir, a Chicago group with ties to the Northwest suburbs, is called "Creatures of Habit." It's a series of loosely connected songs that explore the idea of losing a loved one to the grasping power of religious fervor ญญญ-- a response to Robertson's time growing up in a deeply religious household.
"With this one, I wanted to write modern-day hymns," he said. "Songs that touch on faith but in a different kind of way, that show the darker side of that kind of devoutness."
The Damn Choir will perform on Thursday, May 29, at Chicago's Beat Kitchen, headlining a benefit concert for New Leash on Life, a local organization that finds homes for dogs left in shelters.
The band used to be a duo consisting of Robertson and cellist Katy Myers. Robertson formed the band shortly after moving to Chicago from his native Cleveland about six years ago.
Seeking a fuller sound, Robertson expanded the group to a quintet. One of the last additions was drummer Marty Kane, an Elk Grove Village native who previously played in the suburban dance-pop band Dot Dot Dot.
"I met Gordon through mutual friends," Kane said. "He actually called me one day in a pinch, saying he needed someone on drums for a show that night. I helped him out, and the relationship kind of grew from there."
Kane didn't have a lot of time to put his own spin on the songs that appear on "Creatures of Habit," but he said he's enjoyed being able to do that in a live setting.
"When we went to Brooklyn to record the album, I knew my first responsibility was to play the songs as the band knew them," he said. "It really wasn't my place to start taking liberties with things. But I feel like I've become a stronger part of the band with the live shows we've done since, and that's been really great."
The songs on "Creatures" are catchy and energetic, with skittery rhythms and plenty of pop hooks. Myers' cello floats in and out of the music, while Robertson leaves nothing unrevealed with his emotional vocals.
"I think this was the first record where I was really comfortable with my singing," Robertson said. "I had fun just letting it all come out."
The Damn Choir went on a six-week tour around the time that "Creatures" came out, playing the East Coast and some dates in the South. The group also appeared at the South By Southwest music festival this past March. The crowds and critics have been incredibly supportive, Robertson said.
"The reaction to the record and the band has blown me away," he said.
Robertson said he's looking forward to next week's show for New Leash on Life. Not only is it a chance to perform in front of a hometown crowd, but the show benefits an organization Robertson, a pit-bull owner, feels strongly about.
"We've been supporting them for a while now with our T-shirt sales," he said. "It's great to be able to play in Chicago, and to help a great organization at the same time."