No one sings like Andrew Choi. Two years ago, upon the release of Ten Hymns From My American Gothic, I compared the St. Lenox singer’s voice to John Darnielle, Michael Stipe, and Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart — to that list I’d now add Craig Finn, Cee-Lo Green, and Wesley Willis — but none of those comparisons properly captures the blunt intensity of Choi’s delivery. He shouts every word at you with fierce conviction, as if he’s clenching his fists and conjuring all the force his body can muster. It’s such a jarring, commanding approach that you almost don’t notice anything else happening in his songs besides the detail-rich narratives out front. He could be singing over chillwave or black metal or polka, and his voice is all you’d hear.
As a result of his unique singing style, it’s also hard to miss Choi’s fascinating way with words. Ten Fables Of Young Ambition And Passionate Love, out this Friday, has plenty to offer in that regard. Like the title says, the album finds Choi spinning vignettes from his dating and working life into thoughtful, often lovelorn pop songs. Choi is a queer Korean-American man, raised in Missouri and now working as a lawyer in New York. Along the way he studied violin at Julliard and earned degrees from Princeton, Ohio State, and NYU. Now, as he edges into his forties, he has lived his way into a deep supply of material.
The musical backdrop for these adventures is mostly pleasant indie-pop that might fit in on a Belle & Sebastian album, though St. Lenox deploys them in a much different way. The arrangements are uniformly lite and mostly barebones, leaving his vocals lots of room to carom, though he makes use of his classical violin training on “Brooklyn Superdream” and lets keyboards run amok on “Gold Star” and “The Hungry Years.” Despite their essential slightness, I get the sense these songs would kill in the live setting if performed by a full band, with Choi out front blowing you down. Just listening to the record might be enough to knock you on your ass, though.
Opener “Hashtag Brooklyn Karaoke Party” finds him “heartbroken on the dancefloor at the gay bar singing songs about gin and whiskey.” On closer “Don’t Ever Change Me, New York City,” he bills himself as a “country simpleton, Midwest small-town walking archetype/ Working amongst the skyscrapers” and insists, “I’m uncomfortable around money/ I’m uncomfortable around artificial people.” Plenty of demonstrative sing-talking transpires in between, perhaps never better than on “First Date,” which gets a music video today along with the full album premiere.
The video, directed by Mike Postalakis, stars Kristen Hager, an actress whose credits include movies including Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem and TV series such as Being Human and Condor. It features her in triple split screen preparing for and embarking on a series of less than captivating dates. Meanwhile Choi tells the tale of early flirtations with a doctor: “And you were so nervous then, I saw your hands were shaking/ A little peculiar because you said you were a surgeon/ And you were familiar because you looked like Mike from high school/ But he is a politician’s aide in Pennsylvania.”
As usual, between his keen observations and the sheer power of his voice, you feel like you’re right there with him: living through all the same sensations, seeing the moments through his eyes, relating them back to your own misadventures, marveling at the passage of time. If one mark of a great songwriter is the ability to get you on their wavelength immediately and keep you transfixed, Choi is a true pro, even if music is only his side hustle these days. You may come for the voice, but you’ll stay for the tunes.
Watch the “First Date” video and stream the full Ten Fables Of Young Ambition And Passionate Love below.
10/13 Brooklyn, NY @ Little Skips (8PM)
10/20 Brooklyn, NY @ The Way Station (11PM)
Ten Fables Of Young Ambition And Passionate Love is out 9/28 on Anyway. Pre-order it here. Also on 9/28, Choi will lecture at the University of Kentucky’s Division of Musicology and Ethnomusicology, discussing the visual album version of Ten Hymns From My American Gothic.