Typically, when a band is described as sampling little bits of the pop and rock pantheon for its sound it means one of two things: either the band melds an array of influences to create a homogenized, generic identity, or it replicates so many sounds and styles that it winds up being a mess with little identity at all. Occasionally you'll get a band like the Soundtrack of Our Lives that can shift styles from song to song and still own the music. Even more rarely, the description is used for a band that truly embraces a sublime chaos of sound and music. Such is the case with Apollo Sunshine.
Apollo Sunshine has already drawn the requisite array of comparisons that any new band must inevitably be subjected to. This time its primarily the Flaming Lips, They Might Be Giants, and the Elephant 6 bands. And these are accurate and indicative comparisons, giving you a sense of Apollo Sunshine's aesthetic, but you might also include heavy doses of older material by the Eels, some Jellyfish, and even hints of Ben Folds. And even those touchstones won't give you a real indication of the way that Apollo Sunshine unabashedly incorporates the bombast and drama of Pink Floydian prog rock, and can then turn around and toss out a Brian Wilson reference, often within the same song. In fact, there are suggestions of just about any pop or rock band that's managed to balance a ferocious creativity with a sense of musical whimsy. And all of this comes together in Apollo Sunshine to create something wonderful.
The band itself is made up of the core trio of vocalist/bassist Jesse Gallagher, guitarist Sam Cohen, and drummer Jeremy Black. On paper, this is a deceptively simple instrumental arrangement, but by the time Katonah was completed it was a pale shade of a standard "drums and wires" sound. Much of this can be attributed to the way that the album was birthed. After playing around their native Boston and touring as an opening act, Apollo Sunshine renovated a barn and transformed it into a full studio space in order to record Katonah on their own. Plenty of times, when a band has free reign in a studio the results sound bloated and overindulgent. So does Katonah. But with the assistance of friend and former professor Andy Edelstein as additional producer, Apollo Sunshine makes this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach work. It feels as though no possible studio effect was spared, but instead of sounding "over produced", it sounds uncompromisingly alive and crackling with energy.
This many be stretching the bounds of cultural allusion a bit too far, but if you've ever seen the climax of the low-budget stop-animation movie The Wizard of Speed and Time, then you've got some idea of the frenetic soundscape that Katonah draws up. If you haven't seen it, then simply imagine a symphony of classic keyboard and synthesizer noises -- a fast-paced run through every sound effect and fill that you could force out of a Moog, Korg, Casio, etc, etc. That is the same effect that the bookending tracks, "Katonah" and "Hot Air Balloon", evoke. The first is a brief intro track, a sound collage of guitars, drums, drum machines, and synth effects. The latter closes the album, eventually picking up traces of "Katonah"'s guitar melody and threading it into yet more sound effects in "Hot Air Balloon"'s video game orchestra. With the closing track containing the line "We're all moving backwards in time", the song gives the disc a circularity, moving from the last gasp right back to the beginning.
But these are more or less intro and outro tracks, and it's what's in between that counts, right? Well, while the main body of Katonah is more song-oriented, it is no less inventive and no more stable. As the proper songs go, things really kick off with "Fear of Heights", and it's a good introduction to what Apollo Sunshine is after. The song is a pop structure that won't sit still, moving from angelic, TMBG-esque verses into power pop guitars, pedal steel fills, a prog rock break with synth washes, a fragile bridge, and a clamorous guitar-and-organ frenzy finale, complete with Beach Boys "ahhh, ahhh, ahhh" background vocals. Immediately the track moves into "I Was on the Moon", which approximates a marriage of Barenaked Ladies and Ben Folds, except for the odd middle bridge, and the fact that the song concludes with a noisy, indie rock guitar assault that dissolves into feedback and whining notes.
What follows is the rock breakdown of "Happening", which might actually validate such bloated critical statements as "rock in a post-Radiohead world". It's not just the fuzzed-out, blown-speakers recording of the drum track that gives "Happening" its OK Computer / Hail to the Thief edge. Gallagher's voice alternates between a strained, almost angrily yelled chorus and a light, airy dream-state on the verses, recalling in some degree the styles that Thom Yorke has made famous. Additionally, the other instrumentation on the song fluctuates between piano lines, guitar noise, rumbling bass, screams, overlaid electronic effects, and violin strains. Add to that the lyrical content, which might qualify as the year's most subtly blunt 9/11-influenced images, and you have an odd cousin of "Myxomatosis". What makes it even more remarkable is that you'd never mistake Apollo Sunshine for Radiohead, and while someone might erroneously accuse Apollo Sunshine of offering a cheap copy, "Happening" is actually just a chaotic rock collage in the same vein, without aiming for imitation.
The rest of Katonah drifts within these poles, offering pop compositions that swerve into psych rock, as in the Jellyfish meets the Flaming Lips of "Blood Is Wood" or the Eels meet They Might Be Giants of "The Egg", as well as rockers like the inventive yet jaded "Mayday Disaster". Despite the incredibly mutating material on Katonah, the one thing that never changes is the continual shift of sounds. It's almost as if the songs aren't satisfied being kept in one mold. Even when Apollo Sunshine offers a soft ballad ("Conscious Pilot"), the song evolves into a guitar scorcher by its end, going from folksy acoustic to indie rock power in the space of seven minutes. On top of all that, each track is built up with layers of dropped-in effects ad tiny little hooks. The way the band makes this work is a combination of relentlessness and economy. On the one hand, there is almost zero space between tracks, with one chaotic explosion merging directly into the next. On the other, including the intro and outro tracks, Katonah only offers ten songs, despite clocking in at over forty minutes of music.
If there's one downside to Katonah, it's that almost every song has an extended instrumental conclusion where the band basically just runs with it, allowing the chaos more free rein. While in itself this isn't a bad thing, and it helps give the disc a cohesiveness, it also prevents the listener from concentrating on the more pop-formulaic parts of the songs. However, getting lost with every shift makes this as fun a record for the journey as much as for the destinations. And, as previously noted, this disc has a very circular feel to it, like a roller coaster that just keeps running around and around. While Katonah is not a singularly unified "concept album", the majority of the songs here deal with some reflection on growing up, and the fact that "Katonah" and "Hot Air Balloon" are linked musically, while the second and second-to-last tracks ("Fear of Heights" and "Conscious Pilot") both employ a flight metaphor, all adds up to a very unified experience.
But I fear I'm being overly analytical at this point, and maybe losing the thrill of Katonah. It's not a truly intellectual experience, but one of auditory excess. And Katonah is like offering a cornucopia horn of plenty to a food addicts anonymous meeting. However, it's difficult to say who Apollo Sunshine will appeal to immediately. Of the people I tried to expose to the band, most wound up enjoying the more rock leanings of "Happening" and dismissing "I Was on the Moon", but they also claimed not to be big pop fans. I can't really imagine fans of the bands mentioned previously in this review not falling in love with this disc, but then again Apollo Sunshine doesn't sound exactly like any of them.
I will say this, though: Katonah is one of the most creative and exciting albums that I've heard all year. Apollo Sunshine is a welcome addition to the indie pop fold, as much for their originality as their ability to mimic their forebears. The fact is, if you sit down with this album and listen to it from start to finish, it will take you somewhere. You may or may not like where Apollo Sunshine takes you, it may seem too chaotic or too silly, but it certainly won't be re-tread ground. More power to them.