When Chris Davidson, the musical mind behind the Chicago indie-pop project CHNNLL, spent time submerged in his thoughts during the lockdowns of 2020, he began to envision his life as a series of challenges.
That’s the basis for CHNNLL’s debut full-length album, “The Test,” which he released Friday for purchase and on streaming services.
Between the brighter sparks — including the birth of his daughter — and the darker corners — a long-term health issue of a family member — he found a series of moments that left him exploring and questioning.
But the songs are not as grim as one might expect from such an introspective album coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The whole thing about ‘The Test’ is we get tested every day, here and there, and it’s really just about how you deal with that in the moment because that’s going to dictate how you come out the other side,” he said. “So it’s kind of like being in the thick of things and then hopefully coming out and being better for it.”
Through “The Test,” Davidson takes us along on his journey, from his upbringing in Connecticut and his jazz studies in college, his life in New York City and his eventual move to Chicago — “They say it’s either a job or a woman, and for me it was the latter” — ultimately leading to the creation of his CHNNLL project.
Primarily a drummer in his youth before steeping himself in jazz culture in college, Davidson always held on to the idea of writing his own songs and fronting a band.
Now settled in the heart of Chicago with his family, Davidson challenged himself with a string of his own singles and EPs, expanding his skills and honing his style.
Through his earlier releases, one can see Davidson coaxing his own vulnerability to the forefront and altering his sound from the more digital to a more analog sound. Both are on display in ”The Test,” a culmination of all he’s learned thus far, both in production and in life lessons.
CHNNLL blends modern indie with throwback power-pop as he reminisces but reminds himself not to glamorize the past in the breezy “Golden Days.” He plays with his electro influences on the danceable “Can You Hear Me Now?” Industrial grit scratches up the surface of “For the Kill,” which feels plucked straight from a ’90s soundtrack. And Davidson taps the Joshua Radin school of balladry as he croons his way through his ode to his wife and daughter, “Sweetheart.”
But CHNNLL’s voice really shines when he’s at his raw and exposed best. He probes his darker recesses in “The Wreckage,” an exploration of what remains when survival fades into mere existence; and on “Better Off Alone,” a self-awareness anthem that feels like one part classic Radiohead, one part musical theater.
Davidson said much of “The Test” was written (or revised) during the pandemic, but he didn’t want it to be a pandemic album.
“When I was writing the stuff, I wanted it to be able to last past that, too,” he said. “When the pandemic is over, nobody wants to hear about that anymore. They don’t want to then go and revisit it through a song. You need to write something that’s going to last. So it was kind of just taking those feelings, but they’re the kind of feelings that we always have, whether it’s a pandemic or not. Like they come back in waves and people know them. I just wanted it to be like that.”
Fans will have a chance to hear CHNNLL’s songs this weekend when he and his live band — Kurt Schweitz, Ben Norsworthy and Dave Brandwein — play a release show at Subterranean (Downstairs) with Chicago alternative band ZORILA.
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CHNNLL album release show with ZORILA: 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18, at Subterranean Downstairs, 2011 W. North Ave., Chicago. $10. subt.net.