There are two things that have happened in the last decade that have thrown singer-songwriters for a loop. 1) the mutation of alt-country, once a nice cozy shelter in which the seasoned troubadour could hang his hat and actually sell some records, into a mishmash of disparate styles, ranging from low-rent electronica to torpid jazz-rock, transmogrifying those bands I thought were going to save rock-n-roll (but really, is its something that should be saved? is it like missionaries "saving" the unwashed savages with layers of pretense and elitism resting on every angle of examination?) into refugees into the morass of jam bands; and 2) the Squirrel Nut Motherfucking Zippers, whose devastating effects we can feel to the day, where everyone has to pepper a song with some old-timey hokum to get the art chicks in their frocks to do their own pale imitation of a flapper shimmy in the floor, enacting their daddy issues via Uma Thurman in "Pulp Fiction" (that movie being in itself a sub-culprit in the marketing-ization of indie culture) while teasing their dates into mistakenly thinking they are going to get some later tonight. Yep, it used to be simple. Get you four guitar licks down, get some spooky-ish poet-y lyrics and a cowboy/workshirt and a stool and its on. Now, you need some plumage.
One such guy that wears this plumage rather well is itinerant bard and current singer-swinger of sunny Minneapolis James Apollo, and the feathers in his hat are his fourth album Good Grief, a subtle mix of dusty trail songs, cosmopolitan spates of decadence and bare boned rock. It opens with the rising tide of "Prelude, Colonel Travis" drifting directly into the Palace Brothers low folk hum-n-rustle of "The Alamo." The SNZ references come into play with the excellent "Spring Storm" where a wind whips up a mix of banjo, 3-piece drum kit and fervent vocal. Its good stuff that would be revelatory had the territory not been mined to thoroughly by every Vince Vaughn wannabe in a thrift store zoot suit spewing fake Sinatra aphorisms. His real shining talent is plaintive ballads like "Dead Men Weigh More (Than Broken Hearts)" I added the parentheticals just to drive home how he can create and ride a great line, a lost art like letter writing in my opinion.
A trio of great songs on this eclectic little mix are the upbeat "Libertyille" and the ghost-like croon and reverb of "Long Rope" culminating in the groovy smoker "Mercenary Tango." These numbers smack of adopted styles for effect, but I can't fault him, since they produce a great effect. Like fellow revisionists Paul Burch and Rex Hobart, James Apollo feels the song and feels the styles. He's not just putting on the blue suede shoes, he's willing to walk a mile in them as well.
"Neko" is presumably a lovesong for the imminently lovable Neko Case, and who can blame him. I wanna write a love song for her, and I don't even like her albums all that much. and since I'm apparently going through this thing song by song, lets finish this off. "Loneliness" holds his vocal talents at their apex, with his guitar playing the most sympathetic part possible over a soft snare drum shuffle bed. A Beat sensibility comes through in the groove of "Three Birds" with its lopey funk that, now that I'm listening to it for a second time, might be one of the coolest singles I've heard this year. It contains a degree of restraint that I really like. In fact restraint is a structural flag waving over this album. Its still very evocative, but things are kept as hushed as possible, like the rattly piano that opens "Slow Burn" before it erupts into a delicious faux Mexican shuffle that is only missing some castanets. "All the Pretty" is a twangy little almost Waits-ian number where the drums sound like someone belt-whipping a motel lampshade and we are taken out with the straight up breathtaking kitchen sink sunset anthemic title track that blows through you like a strong breeze. In fact, that's the key to this album, the songs are carried on a breeze, and while it usually takes a gale wind to knock my fat stubborn ass over, a breeze is almost always what I want to feel.
PS. the album is being streamed at his website http://www.jamesapollo.com/ to get your own taste.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com