When the phrase "long-awaited" gets attached to a band's new album, it can mean any number of things. Oftentimes, the band didn't have enough money to finish the album, or they simply burned out from trying to balance touring with recording. The High Divers' new record Chicora comes after a nearly three-year gap since their debut, Riverlust. But in their case, the album had been done for months prior to its March 2 release. For them, life got in the way.
As we've discussed before in the City Paper, the High Divers were involved in a serious car crash last June, when a semi-truck hit their touring van, injuring everyone in the band and their crew. With months of recovery time ahead of them, and an inability to tour, the band pushed back Chicora's planned August release.
Saying it was worth the wait seems insensitive given what caused the delay, but the album, recorded in the home of married couple singer/guitarist Luke Mitchell and singer/keyboard player Mary Alice Connor, breaks new ground for the group while re-emphasizing the basic sound that made people love Riverlust in the first place.
The elements are still in place: Mitchell's irresistible whiskey-vinegar, soulful voice; the anthemic roots-rock foundation; the warm, early '70s R&B feel of the rhythm section, and Connor's subtle piano, harmonies, and organ fills. But the band sounds more confident than they did on Riverlust, and for a homemade album, the production is full-bodied and spacious, giving everyone in the band room to shine. And there are moments when the High Divers sound for all the world like they're a soul band from the '60s transplanted to 2018.
"There's a Motown influence that runs through our music," Mitchell says. "[Bassist] Kevin Early and I used to be in a band when we were kids, and we would play a lot of Temptations stuff, and it's really worked its way into our songs because we respect those musicians."
Mitchell says that Chicora is a lot more representative of the band's true sound than Riverlust was.
"I think we've grown a lot as a band," he says. "It's a lot more reflective of our playing style and of us being more comfortable around each other. Riverlust was recorded when we were just starting to be a band."
The album was largely recorded live, and it was being made at the same time that Connor and Mitchell were planning their wedding. Well, Connor and her mother planned the wedding, leaving Mitchell to mix and finish the album.
"Mary Alice let me work on the album while she planned the wedding with my mother-in-law," he says. "I had so much to do to get the record done. She'd be doing wedding stuff and I'd say, 'Hey can you come and sing on this real fast?', and she'd come do it and then go back to working on the wedding. And then I'd say, 'Hey can you play this piano part real quick?', and it went on like that for a while."
Perhaps because of that atmosphere, many of the songs on Chicora are unabashed declarations of love and devotion, all of which became more poignant after the accident because Connor's injuries were the most serious. The centerpiece of the album is a languid, mid-tempo rocker called "Never Let You Down," that finds Mitchell delivering perhaps his most passionate performance, singing, "I'll be fighting for you, babe/Good times are coming/I could never, ever let you down."
"That's really a meditation on how I was feeling about our relationship right before we got married," he says. "I think that's just kind of where my head was at. Mary Alice and I were getting ready to get married, and it was just a fixture on our minds."
Mitchell says that he and the rest of the band (Connor, Early, and drummer Julius DeAngelis) learned after recording Riverlust that obsessing over a song, or even a section of a song, was almost always futile. This time out, they took their time, and frequently took breaks and came back to the recordings later.
"I learned not to chase stuff for too long, because you really wear yourself out in the process," he says. "And rarely is that effort worth it. When the stars align, when it's more meant to be, the song comes together easier. So we didn't chase things as hard, and we let things sit. We were touring a lot in between, and it was necessary that we leave it on the backburner. Then when we came back to it later with fresh ears, it sounded better than we remembered it."
Now, with the album out and touring on the horizon, Mitchell says the band loves what they do more than ever, even if stepping back into the (new) van makes them somewhat nervous.
"We took it seriously before the wreck, but now we take it very seriously," he says. "It's more sacred when we go to play a show. But it's freaky for us now, too. It's scary for us to go out there on the highway and be out there with a bunch of people texting while they drive. We've come out the other side being a lot more serious about what we do, because all of that can change in a second. We experienced that, so we know how precious it is to be out there doing what you want to do."