he members of Apollo Sunshine all seem to have a southern twang in the sound of their voices and guitars, which is a little odd, given that the band formed in Boston. The bearded quartet's lyrics have simple, touchy-feely themes, but their music makes such a perverse, careening, gutsy mess out of pleasant, pastoral genres like country, classic rock, jam bands, and folk that it's hard to write them off as just a bunch of mellow hippies. More often than not, they sound like an indie-damaged version of the Band, but as soon as they settle into something restrained and mannered, skronky bass riffs and manic guitar solos suddenly start pouring out of them in a way that resembles nothing so much as a malfunctioning machine belching smoke.
Apollo Sunshine's self-titled second album for SpinArt is a bumpy ride of abrupt mood and tempo shifts, but never strays far from the band's strengths. For every nearly silent moment of whispers and lightly strummed acoustic guitars, there's an eruptive instrumental section or an upbeat power-pop tune. The album opener "Flip!" sets the tone with a fast surf-rock groove that keeps abruptly stopping for quiet, meditative sections with lyrics about the ice caps melting and ending up on the other side of the world.
What makes Apollo Sunshine more than just another cutely eccentric and vaguely rootsy indie-rock band is guitarist Sam Cohen. His pedal steel guitar renders the slower tracks like "Phone Sex" with a delicate beauty. And his scorching, inspired solos on songs like "Ghost," "Lord," "Phyllis"—actually, about half the songs on the album—arm Apollo Sunshine with both impressive musicianship and ear-shattering noise. Cohen also sings lead on a few songs, including "Lord" and "Phoney Maroney," and while his voice lacks the affability and range of regular vocalist Jesse Gallagher, it has its own charm.
The jumpy, almost-rockabilly"Today Is Your Day" is possibly the most straightfoward and accessible song on the album, an expression of optimism and joy occasionally peppered with outbursts of obscenities. When Gallagher's voice suddenly breaks into a jubilant scream "that grass looks good to roll in / well, ROLL IN THAT FUCKIN' GRASS!" it's at once a jarring moment and one that perfectly captures the carefree mood of the song.
But for every upbeat and traditionally structured track like "Today Is Your Day" or the silly fabricated dance craze of "Phony Maroney," there's something like "Phyliss," the album's strangest song and arguably its climax. It begins as a quiet wisp of a tune over a slowly thumping bass drum, and gradually builds up to a lurching, monstrous bass riff, as Gallagher rattles off vague, philosophical statements like, "If the universe ends, then how does it end?" and "There's always too much of everything and there's always not enough." The band displays competent three-part harmonies on other tracks, but when they sing the song's title on "Phyliss," it's a purposefully abrasive caterwaul that brings the song to a bizarre climax that contains the same palpable joy as the band's jangly pop tunes.
Though the sum of Apollo Sunshine's apparent influences could be that of any number of indie bands performing today, they've managed to turn those broad and common ingredients into an increasingly unique and personalized sound. And the presence of serious musical chops and showmanship, along with an astounding live show, will hopefully separate them from the post-Elephant 6 masses of retro bedroom troubadours. Only on their second album, they're already coming into their own. While their recorded output has still not quite caught up to their prowess as a live band, that moment is likely right around the corner; in the meantime, this album is more than good enough to make that wait worthwhile.
Reviewed by: Al Shipley
Reviewed on: 2005-12-12