We all know that music is made to take you places. That’s why Andrew Whiteman—guitarist of the Canadian collective Broken Social Scene—created Apostle of Hustle. The trio’s m.o. is to woo you to a barrio in Havana, Cuba. While in the grip of their retranslation of Cuban rhythms, they’ll gloriously lure you to a muse-summoning spot which Whiteman calls “the borough of a possible nowhere.”
Apostle of Hustle first formed after Whiteman returned from the barrio Santo Saurez in Havana, Cuba, circa 2001, and proceeded to recruit Julian Brown and Dean Stone. They began playing local shows, and in between Broken Social Scene touring, ultimately pieced together 2004’s debut Folkloric Feel. That album was a first experiment in Whiteman’s new love of Cuba’s infectious and influential rhythms. Even though it was reminiscent of some Broken Social Scene sounds Folkloric Feel, still stood alone as Whiteman’s first step in his endeavor to create “music that did not yet exist.”
There’s a clear progression with National Anthem of Nowhere. The deep pulses of rhythm are richer and flow faster, and are mixed with electronic beats and distortion-drenched vocals. It’s as if Whiteman is taking you through “el barrio” and pointing out what he sees and hears, translating it via his own inspirations. The once-hidden undertones of Cuban mysticism and Latin folklore—as seen through the eyes of Whiteman—make their way to the surface and create the scene that he saw during his barrio sojourn. It’s in this Latin theatre of sound that the album becomes a sonic trip to a Caribbean bungalow, where beautifully contrasting textures, twisting tempos and heavy vocals dipped in gobs of distortion work together to find a way to break free into a pristine crescendo when the choruses come around.
The first door, “My Sword Hand’s Anger”, flings open with grinding fuzz and throbbing groove, grabbing you instantly and rumbling right on through to the end without giving you so much as a moment to think about the tale Whiteman is telling. Like many of the songs on Anthem, sharp left turns are taken, from verses with throbbing guitars and sampled beats to a crisp crescendo chorus where Whiteman’s voice is crystal-clear and inspiring.
Halfway through—and Anthem wouldn’t be complete without it—is “Rafaga!”, a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca put to music and sung completely in Spanish, lifted off the page by a contrast of gentle words, harsh guitars and percolating percussion. It tells a heartaching tale of a man captivated by a woman’s beauty as she passes by.
The title track “National Anthem of Nowhere” is just that: an anthem for anyone who has ever felt like they don’t belong. With this song Whiteman wants to unite the detached and alone under one anthem of melody. The epic “Haul Away”, detached “The Naked and Alone”, and the final, somber tune “NoNoNo” all explore—from deferent angles and through different eyes—pain, anger, loss and sorrow. It’s not all apparent at first look and listen, because Whiteman brilliantly succeeds at drenching the lyrics in programmed beats, guitars and, of course, rhythm.
Compared with Folkloric Feel there’s more pop and accessibility here. “Chances Are” is either a celebratory tune or over-the-top sarcasm; either way it works perfectly when it follows the harshness of “Haul Away”, which Whiteman says was inspired by playing word games with Broken Social Scene bandmate Feist. “Cheap Like Sebastien” is another soft, gentle number, explaining why a person would want to keep the private things in life private, and why that is not always the best choice. “Justine, Beckoning” echoes the call to be real: “Justine / take off that disguise / in the sunlight there’s nothing you can hide / Justine / the world is cruel I know / but escape is loneliness for sure.”
My feelings are 50/50 on the lyrics. Whiteman’s style, though deft and picturesque, might be too abstract and counterproductive. But the flipside is that he offers lyrical mysticism, the option that every music listener loves. You can follow along in the liner notes and have fun dissecting the words to “figure out” the song, but it appears that Whiteman has made the record with attention first to rhythm, then to tone, and then to the actual words themselves as you see them on paper. The album is packed with sonic photos where the lyrics—on the strength of the music—paint a picture of the barrio which he said “blew his mind.” “A Rent Boy Goes Down” is one of several moments where the guitars, drums and lyrics coverage to create an unforgettable cerebral snap shot: “Shadows on the wall / shadows on the depth of his face /…shadows on the wall / shadows taking everyone’s place.”
Apostle of Hustle has infused Anthem with the same pumping flow and surge that was heard on “24 Robbers”, their contribution to the children’s music compilation See You on the Moon, yet with Cuban influences. The album sends the listener to several wonderful places, but certainly anywhere but nowhere.