Inventive musical chameleons continue to mutate, flipping from psych-pop to Southern rock band with their usual reckless abandon, and refusing to sit still long enough to be labeled.
All right, I'll come right out and admit it: I've sat on this one for a while. Sat and listened; sat and watched the press catch on and debate its merits; and finally, sat and waited for the moment the disc would reveal itself to me. Because I was certain that this disc would be a grower. I mean, I really wanted it to be a grower. Thankfully, after some fretting and moments of doubt, I got my wish.
You see, when I got my copy of Katonah in the closing months of 2003, I went through the same process with Apollo Sunshine. The more I listened, the more I was convinced that I was in the presence of genius, but I wasn't quite ready to commit myself until I was sure that the magic wasn't just a glossy first impression. When Katonah continued to thrill me and tickle the little G-spot of musical bliss that's somewhere in my gray matter, I finally committed the review to print and even managed to make up my mind in time to give the disc a commendable spot on my Top 10 of the year. I spent the next few months telling friends who I knew were sympathetic to the musical cause of sonic pop explosion and studio gimmickry taken to absurd and chaotic heights to check out Apollo Sunshine, and I was rewarded by a few ardent "Thank you!"s in response.
Needless to say, I was eager for the follow up, and even when I heard news from the band that the sophomore effort was going to be a more organic affair that captured their live sound, as opposed to the studio smorgasbord of the debut, I figured that change could be exciting. Then I heard the first few clips -- the bent gospel of "Today Is the Day" and the warped country of "Magnolia" -- and found myself scratching my head, biting my nails in worry that something had gone wrong. Some black hole in the mail service conspired to swallow up my first copy of Apollo Sunshine, so I could only let my nervous tension grow as some reviews lauded the band as a strong new voice, PopMatters and the New York Times hailed their performance at CMJ as a festival highlight, and other reviews lamented the meandering country veneer that coated the tracks. Country? Sure, Apollo Sunshine liberally applied the pedal steel on Katonah, but in the service of taking the torch from the Flaming Lips. Right?
Finally, my own copy of the disc arrived, and I sat down to listen with doubt creeping into every corner of my mind, noticing the frightening brevity of the enclosed lyrics before the songs even spun on my Discman. Had Apollo Sunshine lost their way after one brilliant debut? Was this the dreaded "sophomore slump"? What's with the spontaneous self-titling of follow-up albums, anyway?
As the last strains of the last song on this short-seeming disc came to a close, I was painfully close to writing off Apollo Sunshine as a loss. It wasn't just that they hadn't recreated Katonah -- I've found myself arguing on the side of bands who are willing to change directions on many occasions -- it was that some kind of spark seemed to be missing, the kernel of limitless energy that seemed to spill out of every track on that first release, and which at times threatened to bury the listener in an overflowing wardrobe of sound.
But I wasn't quite ready to give up. My expectations may not have been answered in the way I was hoping for, but I'd come to believe, and that kind of faith is sometimes rewarded with patience. So I listened and waited and listened again, and finally, on maybe the fourth or fifth spin, it finally began to open up to me like the dusty highway vista that Apollo Sunshine really is. Where with Katonah I commented on the band's seeming reluctance to end a song, with this new disc they've taken the opposite tactic and cut things short with surgical precision. The complete style shifts that overwhelmed the definition of "coda" on the first disc have been replaced with a tension of isolated melody on this second album. Where chaos once pulled at the band with gravitational force, here it's more tightly controlled and confined to singularities. The sprawling exuberance occurs underneath the tracks rather than all over them.
While you might not recognize it without first listening to Katonah immediately prior, the band cleverly announces the sharp left turn in the first track, "Flip!". Crashing out of the gate with a chiming guitar melody and jogging rhythm, the song starts on a course that feels similar to that debut, then suddenly stops for Sam Cohen to yell out "Flip!", and the song careens into a new guitar pop melody that hints at a more traditional arrangement, while Cohen sings about suddenly winding up on a different side of the world and seeing it all through new eyes.
Things are immediately followed by the building edge of "Ghost", which begins with a muted chime and soft vocals, then shifts into a guitar section building in intensity, stumbles into a twangy bridge, then drops back down to the breathy lyrics and chimes to a close. So far, so good, so Apollo Sunshine. But the minute-long thought pattern of "A Finger Pointing at the Moon" is immediately odd for its brevity, and this slips straight into "Phony Marony", a track that builds on a Southern rock base to create an unlikely dance number, which drops into the rockabilly jam of "Today Is the Day". With little pause and looking back, Apollo Sunshine has suddenly mutated into a rock band as influenced by its time on the road with My Morning Jacket and its time on stage with Leon Redbone as the psychedelic pop savants that Katonah may have hinted towards.
While the instrumental interlude of "The Hotter, the Wetter, the Better" might raise a few organ-drenched rock fists in the air for a moment of lysergic reprise, and "Eyes" might be the fuzzy pop cousin of Katonah's "The Egg", the album's second act is made up of an even more twang-inflected tone in the back-to-back sequence of "Phone Sex", "Magnolia", "Phyliss", "God", and "Lord". It's not that they don't do it well -- plenty of reviewers have reacted favorably to the Western, blues, and spiritual flavors -- it's just that Apollo Sunshine seemed like an unlikely choice for the band to provide hitchhiking Americana songs and go the Wilco route. Even the soft, firefly closing of "Bed" seems strange when compared to the surge of "Hot Air Balloon" the first time around.
But it's in the repeated listens that Apollo Sunshine begins to slip into place. Once the ear is ready for the stylistic differences, you can put aside your surprise and start listening for the individual pieces, and that's where the magic of the band continues to show itself. In fact, the subtlety of this disc is even more surprising than the excess of Katonah, because you don't immediately notice the harmonies, the twisted melodies, and the plundering instrumentation in these tracks. The fact that the songs fool you into noticing the normal elements is more impressive for hiding the weird bits.
While Apollo Sunshine might not continue in the exact same direction as Katonah, they haven't really jumped the rails either. At the same time, this album isn't quite the total realization of the band that I'd hoped for either. When a band suddenly downshifts, sometimes the audience lurches forward into the seatbelt. Damned if I don't feel like a hypocrite for saying it, but after tossing out the minor complaint that Apollo Sunshine had a tendency to drag songs out too far on Katonah, the exact opposite is true of this self-titled disc, and it seems like they've gotten a little heavy-handed with the pruners. Whereas Katonah was nearly exhausting in its density, this ablum feels short, with plenty of songs hardly reaching the two-minute mark, much less crossing it. The couple of tracks that feel like they achieve the perfect balance are "Phyliss" and "Lord" (which has a fabulous rock freak-out outro to compliment the Katonah tunes).
By all reports, the addition of Sean Aylward to the permanent line-up has given the band the legs to flesh out the songs live, and the concert reviews are shaping up to prove Apollo Sunshine has become a killer live act. Moreover, Apollo Sunshine the album is receiving more notice and press than Katonah did, and that can only be a favorable thing for the future. Perhaps the third album will find the band hitting dead center between the two discs. Or maybe it will veer off in a new direction entirely, creating a career map like one of those pendulum-fueled spirograph drawings. Regardless, Apollo Sunshine remains a musical force of merit that continues to win on sheer creativity, and a band like that is always going to challenge expectations.