The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir – I Bet You Say That to All the Boys

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

A Chicago band from the 2000s that brought a welcome dose of melody, humor, and sophistication to the Midwest, the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir released three albums before being ended by a serious (but non-fatal) car accident in 2009. Elia Einhorn and Matthew Kerstein formed the band in 2001, gradually adding on members. Einhorn in particular was recovering from a history of serious substance abuse (referenced in several SYGC songs) and found purpose and reward in creating music. The SYGC quickly garnered a lot of critical and media attention, which I only wish had translated into greater success.

What I Think of This Album

So, somehow I jumped from the SA part of my collection straight to the SE part, completely skipping over the SCs and not noticing until I was done drafting the Sex Pistols review. I wish I could say I don’t know how that happened, but I know exactly how it happened, and while I will continue to insist that I do in fact have a strong familiarity with the alphabet, I can admit to an organizational hiccup and some lack of attention. Anyway, on to (finally) the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir.

The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir is basically an earthier, American version of Belle and Sebastian. At least on this album, which is something of an outlier in their catalog, the SYGC celebrates the roughness around the edges, being much less concerned than their Scottish inspiration about creating a pristine (not to say precious) sound. And, putting lie to my description, the songwriting and singing contributions of soon-to-be-departed founding member Matthew Kerstein create some tension within the album, as he takes more of a troubadourian, Dylanesque approach whereas as Elia Einhorn is mostly in the indie/chamber pop camp. In other words, you can tell whose songs are whose on this album.

Kerstein supplies six of the fourteen tunes here, and in general he is the more earnest and serious of the two main songwriters. Even when Kerstein employs the more orchestral approach of his partner, such as on “Bet You Never Thought It Would Be Like This,” the overall mood and tone is downcast and somber. He is capable of bringing energy, as demonstrated by the surging, carnal “She Just Wants to Move,” but even then, there is little joy in his work. 

Two harmonica parts color the tale of questioning and lost bearings that is “Mother’s Son,” easily Kerstein’s best song here. There is a surprising bit of moralizing in “Along the Way,” when Kerstein sings “No one set out to be an unwed mother,” comparing it to being a drunk driver or an adulterous partner. This jarring lyric throws off an otherwise heartfelt and apologetic plea for understanding.

Einhorn on the other hand demonstrates a playfulness and sense of humor, though this leaves him open to the comparisons with Belle and Sebastian and the Smiths. That said, the melodies, lyrics, and arrangements are wonderful, and Einhorn infuses his songs with heart, making it all sound fresh. His greatest accomplishment is probably the frothy “Topsy Turvy,” with its colorful organ chords and an insouciant, tinny synthetic drum part. “Topsy Turvy” and a few other tracks (such as the zippy “Ellen’s Telling Me What I Want to Hear” – a song presumably about bandmate Ellen O’Hayer and the folky “I Say the Stupidest Things Sometimes”) manage to create their own identity, proving that Einhorn can create compelling songs using familiar ingredients. “Fan Club” is also a standout, with key additions from flugelhorn, Rhodes piano, and cello, and notable for, perhaps with a wink, explicitly namechecking Stuart Murdoch (Belle and Sebastian) and Tracyanne Campbell (Camera Obscura).

Less original are “Jennie That Cries,” which sounds like a hidden track on If You’re Feeling Sinister, and the similar pastiche of “I Know a Girl.” But even in these songs, you can tell that Einhorn is capable of more than mimicry. “Girl,” for example, employs some grounded, gospel-like background vocals (by the Gospellettes, of course) that add character.

The SYGC would repurpose “Tear Down the Opera House” later, but here it exists in rough, almost punkish form. It’s not a style that meshes well with the rest of the album but the lyrics are great (“So tear down the opera house / There’s nothing there for me, only beauty / And I don’t think that’s very appropriate here”) and it’s nice to hear the band get a little messy.

Special props to cellist/vocalist O’Hayer, who contributes the sweet “Would You Still Love Me If I Were In a Knife Fight?” (though it is spooky to hear the prescient verse “I would still love you / If you were in a car crash / Your glasses smashed / Your hair a mess with broken glass”). This is a lovely and delicate song that stands alone on the album, avoiding both the solemnity of Kerstein and the archness of Einhorn.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Topsy Turvy” is both fun and good, though a close second is all the explicit Chicago references in the lyrics throughout the album: the Brown Line, the Art Institute, Symphony Center.

Release Date

October, 2003

The Cover Art

I’m a big fan of the monochrome, saturated cover photo on principle (which the Smiths did well and Belle and Sebastian not so much), but this one goes wide of the mark. It’s lacking in sharpness and definition and seems more like an accidental photo (not even a candid), giving it all a haphazard quality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Proudly powered by WordPress | Theme: Baskerville 2 by Anders Noren.

Up ↑