Review: St. Lenox – Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love
Ah, New York City. Home of the politicians. Home of blind ambition. Home of beautiful people. Home of financiers. And now, the home of Korean-American singer-songwriter Andrew Choi, a full-time attorney and part-time musician.
Performing under the alias St. Lenox, Choi’s an unlikely musician given his bizarre academic history. A NYU law school graduate, PhD in philosophy, and one-time Julliard concert violinist, Choi ironically rediscovered his love for creating music thanks to the pressures of academia–singing karaoke to calm his nerves before public speaking engagements. Songwriting soon became a hobby, leading to Choi composing his own material and performing them at local open-mic nights before capturing the attention of Colombus-base independent record label Anyway Records–who later signed him on as an artist. His first two releases, 2014’s Ten Songs About Memory and Hope and 2016’s Ten Hymns From American Gothic, announced the arrival of a gifted, sage-like storyteller who’s experienced it all–writing songs tackling themes like (naturally) the eponymous memory and hope, heartbreak, and his identity as a second generation Korean-American (specifically, the last five songs from his sophomore album). On his latest release Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love, Choi draws his inspiration from the city of New York itself and the “young ambition” and “passionate love” that its inhabitants experience every day.
And my, what an achievement it is.
Throughout the entirety of Ten Fables, Choi spins story after story, poem after poem pertaining to his new home of New York like it’s second nature–bringing to mind the image of the wise old American storyteller with his witty, observant, and clever lyricism. Any single lyric that you could take from this album could be a poem on its own, even without being within a song’s framework. In the middle of the beautifully written “You’ve Got To Feel It”, there are the lines “French impressionists twirling their beards can tell you how to start a revolution / But it’s all a flight of fancy until you finally get the proof of it,” followed by “Babes from Mars with their legs and stars / Can give a lesson in how to move it / But it’s all confabulation until you take a step or two”. Choi conjures up imaginative metaphors for his feelings in this instant and everywhere else on the album.
Add onto that Choi’s singing voice. Booming, gruff, yet versatile (it’s hard to believe that nerves have ever held this man down)–it’s unlike anybody else’s in the scene right now. Every single lyric on Ten Fables is delivered with such conviction that it’s easy to be taken aback by the power of Choi’s voice. Songs like “Apparently” and the chorus of “Don’t Ever Change Me New York City” are proof enough of the dynamic qualities of Choi’s vocal range. In one moment he might be calmly delivering rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness lyrics about self-induced anxiety, and in the next he’ll burst into a stunning vocal scale. On this album, anything goes.
Most of the stories on Ten Fables are taken from his own experience–“Hashtag Brooklyn Karaoke Party”, “First Date”, and “Don’t Change Me New York City” are the best examples of the perceptive view that Choi has of his own city. Here you’ll find those familiar biographical influences scattered throughout. Karaoke bars, that childhood in West Missouri and Iowa, and the journey to Brooklyn are all casually alluded to, working its way into the very fiber of the album that makes it distinctly Choi’s. These songs are the highlights of his New York City story without overrunning the album with unnecessary thoughts, immortialising small events that would otherwise be footnotes in the larger scheme of things.
These detailed observations are how Choi brings these events to life, taking his listener on his journey with him. On “First Date”, he notices the irony of his date’s words when he sings “You were so nervous that I saw your hands a-shaking / A little peculiar cause you said you were a surgeon.” On “Hashtag Brooklyn,” it’s the “Peggy Lee tune” that his father used to play back in the day, the “song from the Motown era”, and the “sad Elvis moves” that stands out to him on a wild karaoke night in one of Brooklyn’s colorful gay bars. On “Don’t Change Me New York City”, it’s the number of promises that he made to himself when he made his way to the Big Apple, promising himself that he would never be a “peon”, a “fool”, or a “drifter”. Throughout, the amount of detailed anecdotes that we get gives us the sense that Choi’s not just sharing a story with us–he’s offering to let us live it with him. There’s a legendary quality to it all.
But at the heart of it, Ten Fables is an album for the people. After all, the cover photo of Ten Fables isn’t even of Choi himself, but of the diverse streets of Brooklyn filled with hundreds of people and hundreds of stories. The chatter of the radio (“Apparently”), the bicycle bell sounds (“Don’t Ever Change Me…”), and the saxophones (“You Have Got To Feel It”) make the album feel alive, like you’re right there at that intersection with him. Even the video for “Don’t Ever Change Me New York City” is a tribute to helping make his new city better; it features him going to the park and asking the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation to take down some inappropriate words from a playground.
On songs that aren’t told from his point of view (unexplained characters like George, Alex, and an unnamed man on “The Hungry Years” make an appearance), Choi gives each of these outsourced stories the same depth and color as he does on his own. Here he shares the lives of the residents of Brooklyn: the “weary-eyed wanderer from another country”, the man struggling to feed his family, the performer that make less than those “beggars on the street”. These are the stories of the people who we’ve seen all our lives in the city, but who we’ve never had the time or courage to stop and talk to. It’s Humans of New York in the best possible way–a time capsule and a love letter to the here and now.
Halfway through the album on “Vincent Van Gogh”, Choi surprisingly falls into a lapse of self-consciousness, comparing himself to the titular artist who was only revered after he died. “You’ll never understand what it’s like to be a pre-long-since-forgotten singer-songwriter, buddy / I could scream at the top of my lungs my despair / But the sound waves would never even get to you”, he fears. But he’s got nothing to worry about. Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passion is a piece of modern Americana just as much as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is, or as American as the Statue of Liberty. It’s a masterful portrait of what it’s like being an American in 2018–second-generation Korean-American and all.