23 December 2008

2008 in Review: Artist of the Year

There were a few bands that spent a good time in my consciousness this year, in the car stereo, through the earbuds, popping up in my RSS feed, on my mind and up there on stage. I seemed to see Marco Benevento on a monthly basis and his "Invisible Baby" was in heavy rotation from back when there were plenty of calendar pages to turn. Heck, even Phish wormed its way into my days with reunion talk going from rumor to reality and several amazing archival releases scattered through the seasons.

But one band's blip on my radar screen was a bit brighter and a bit noisier: Apollo Sunshine. There was a three month period in the heart of 2008 where I saw these guys on three separate, silly sweet occasions and was bunkered down with their "Shall Noise Upon" CD while my love for the band just grew and grew.

Yeah, it's great to see a lot of shows from your favorite bands, but the Apollo Sunshine shows I saw this year somehow transcended your average "gig" -- each was a one-of-a-kind snowflake, a unique crystallization of the basic elements that became something much more wonderful. It seems like they don't do run-of-the-mill shows and so the average Apollo show is already a special occurrence. In August, they played on the always a-rockin' Half Moon Cruise Ship as it sailed its famous course over the East River. The cruise shows always lend themselves to drunken, summer fun: loose and constantly teetering, literally and figuratively. The setting is perfect for Apollo, the style is intentionally ragged -- a pair of distressed jeans where you don't know if the holes and bleach spots were made purposely or actually worn down naturally over years of heavy use. That August night didn't quite reach the epicness of their 2007 cruise, but it still was quintessential Apollo Sunshine: loud, fast and constantly teetering on the edge of chaos although never quite toppling.

Barely a month later, I caught wind of the band's return. Of course, it was a "special event," this time two gigs in the back room of a Williamsburg restaurant, Monkey Town. 50 people max in the room each night, I would not be missing it. The room was one of the cooler places I've seen music this year, a truly unique spot to see a show. The band was set up in the middle with very low couches lining the four walls and tables for food and drink not too much higher. Each wall was covered with a gigantic screen so there was a wicked quadraoptic effect as bizarre clips and animations were projected. The setlist couldn't have varied too much from the boat cruise a few weeks earlier, but the show couldn't have been more different. Apollo Sunshine has a way of filling up the space before them, much in the same way the Aquarium Rescue Unit used to. Yes, the stuff they use to fill that space -- the songs -- is the same, but the way they fit together to fill that container, like rotating pieces in a Tetris game, is unique and interesting and almost always awe-inspiring. The September hit at Monkey Town felt like something out of a different time. Part of it was like being a Greek emperor, lounging in Dionyisan excess, food, whiskey and blissful entertainment at our utterly relaxed fingertips. On the flip side, we could have been the Austrian aristocracy, sitting in a chamber while beautiful music was presented for our liking. With the tripped-out visuals and Apollo Sunshine's psychedelic power trio, we could have been dropped-out stoners in a basement in the bowels of Summer-of-Love San Francisco. The band was all those things and also just straight up rock and roll.

Finally, in October, the band announced a gig at Mercury Lounge as part of their short Halloween tour. A couple days before the show they announced they'd be donning the costume -- both music and attire -- of the Jimi Hendrix Experience... the Apollo Sunshine Experience. Well, that just about settled it, so on the Wednesday before Halloween, I found myself back in front of these three guys listening to much the same songs and hearing them as if they were fresh and new. This was the most standard of the gigs for a while, as they played a too-quick hour of the standard material. The crowd was thin that night and it sapped some of the energy in the room. Still, it is a testament to how much this band does it for me that I was still raging with every thumping bass lick, rollicking guitar solo and off-kilter drum splat. They left the stage and returned in full regalia, big fat wigs and wild, psychedelic outfits. They looked the part perfectly and launched into an extended encore/short set of Hendrix tunes. 100% kick ass... even in the most vanilla of circumstances, they found a way to elevate the situation, pouring a bunch of hot fudge and whipped cream and giving us a nice Halloween treat.

In between all these shows, the band put out "Shall Noise Upon" which was one of my favorite releases of the year. The best bands are those that grab you a bit at first, but don't sink their teeth into you right away... and then, as time goes on, you realize that you're smitten. Apollo Sunshine has been that way for me and this album is that experience in a nutshell. "Shall Noise Upon" diverges pretty strongly from the raging, haphazard glory of their live shows. It's a details-oriented wunderkammern with little baubles of music popping up in between some real yummy songs. The styles hit on the rocking, grooving and freak folk from their past albums, but also gets into some nifty Latin moves with "Honestly" and adds vast swaths of string section and other accouterments to flesh this out into an all-encompassing near-masterpiece. If anything, it seems a little overambitious at first, but after several listens you realize (once again) that these guys love to rock and go crazy time, but they're actually supremely talented musicians and songwriters. The sound is just right in each spot. The pedal steel, which is like a bonus throw-in during the live shows is featured prominently here. The opening one-two punch of "Breeze" and "Singing to the Earth" is as poignant and wonderful as any introduction to an album you'll hear this year. "Coming of the New World Government" is a total Beatlesque production freakout with music going forward and backward at the same time leaving wicked vortices to wrap your brain around in between. The track of the album is certainly "Money." Jesse Jarnow did a much better job explaining the potency and relevance of this song, so check out his blurb.

As usual, having trouble organizing my thoughts 100%, so here's a bunch of worth-checking-out links to get you to the next brain-dump. Enjoy you some Apollo Sunshine!

The great video for Singing to the Earth:
Video for Money:

Here's a nice idea of some live Apollo Sunshine from early in the year... "Lord":

One of the more fun live tunes "Bach" in shaky video form from this summer:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I adore Apollo Sunshine. They're so talented and have awesome taste too - ive been checking out Drummer Jeremy Black's featured top 10 playlist on erockster.com. so far so good.