Apostle of Hustle’s Modern-Day Folkloric Feel
Here’s yet another example of something radiantly beautiful that would have made last year’s year-end compilation a little longer. In fact, given all the things I’ve been getting into lately, it seems I missed more good music than I actually heard during 2004. And a lot of that music has a connection to one band whose 2003 album would have made that year’s compilation had I known about it. I’m thinking of Broken Social Scene, the Toronto collective whose brilliant You Forgot It in People (released on the Arts & Crafts label), was a tour-de-force exploration of the best that current indie rock has to offer. Alongside high-volume, cathartic guitar rock like “KC Accidental” and “Almost Crimes,” the CD featured trippy headphone tunes like “Looks Just like the Sun,” the aptly titled “Late Night Bedroom Rock for the Missionaries” and “Shampoo Suicide.” While I don’t recall seeing this comparison made anywhere, one might liken what has happened in the time since the group’s debut, Feel Good Lost (2001), was released as being quite like what happened after the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) dropped in 1993: the varied members of the collective have realigned in ever-shifting configurations to release a number of stellar recordings. Truth to tell, though, while both Stars and Metric existed before BSS, one can almost see the latter group as hub from which all the other groups emanate. From that center, for example, came (Leslie) Feist’s Let It Die (discussed in the 21 February entry) and the new album by Stars, Set Yourself on Fire.
Just last week, while browsing through record stores on Yonge Street in Toronto, I decided to buy Folkloric Feel, the debut recording from Andrew Whiteman’s Apostle of Hustle. I had read about the CD shortly after its release last year but was admittedly skeptical of the praise it received. After all, the stories about Whiteman visiting a relative in Cuba, buying a tres and deciding to make an album, most of whose songs would prominently feature the instrument, had too much resonance with other “North American/British musician finds inspiration in the music of formerly colonized nations” tales. If you don’t know what I mean, think Ry Cooder’s “discovering” pre-Castro Cuban music (Buena Vista Social Club) or Paul Simon’s doing the same with South African mbaqanga (Graceland) and Andean music (The Rhythm of the Saints).
My skepticism, it turns out, was misplaced, and the reviewers were spot on. The ten songs on the album are not the work of a musician whose inspiration was flagging and who sought help through exoticism. To the degree that references to Cuban music surface at all, they are subtle—less the product of emulation than of adding a new sonority to an already expansive sonic palette. “Kings and Queens,” for example, finds AW and his collaborators combining the sound of the tres with acoustic guitars, six- and twelve-string, to astonishing effect in the intro. Likewise, the CD’s opener, also the title track, starts as though it could have been a track on You Forgot It in People with the difference that the contrapuntal tres lines give the song a decidedly different sound. When the clavé bell pattern briefly fades in and out around 2:16, just before the song morphs into one of its many shapes, it sounds like an acknowledgement of sources, a footnote in the unfolding drama, if you will. Moreover, when the analog synths, single-line tremeloed guitar and stuttering drum pattern enter to flesh out the song’s second section, it’s clear that Whiteman et al. are after something different. The second track, “Sleepwalking Ballad,” pretty much blows away any idea that Apostle of Hustle are engaging in any kind of musical exoticism.
What really makes the CD work for me, though, is how beautiful, spacious and noisy most of the tracks are. “Baby You’re in Luck” is the kind of song that would sound great on headphones because there are so many spicy details—the squeaks of fingers moving on strings, the attention given to panning the instrumental and percussive sounds. Just as much, though, it’s the kind of song that begs to fill a room equipped with good stereo speakers. The placement of Amy Milan’s background vocals leaves the impression that she was just over there, slightly to the singer’s left and behind him.
The standout song for me is “Animal Fat.” The verses have a lilting quality, apparently borrowed from Latin American popular songs from the 1920s to the ’50s. The melody in those sections is inviting, enhanced by background vocals from Julian Brown and Feist. But the choruses are what forced me to take notice. They are the perfect combination of beautiful melody, atmospheric backgrounds (provided most notably by Feist) and dramatic harmonic flow. I could type out the words, but reading them would do little to convey the sonic impact. The details of the track’s recording create a wonderful sense of space, making it sound almost as though the group were recorded in a single room, all at once, with the vocalists moving toward and away from a single microphone to control the prominence of their parts at different points. Whiteman is so far from that putative mic on the last line of the third verse that one can barely make out what he’s singing: his voice is obscured by the instruments that are closer.
When I played the track for Jason and Pedro Friday night, they both wanted to hear it again. It was a stopper for them and a perfect cap to an evening of listening that also included a rare Durutti Column track (courtesy of Pedro) as well as selections from Piano Magic’s The Troubled Sleep of Piano Magic.
This entry has to end like so many others: with a suggestion that you find a way to tickle your ears with the music just described. If you’re too busy to make it out to your favorite, non-chain record store, you can legally download it from iTunes. By the way, I’m not trying to be partisan by recommending the iTunes store; I checked both the MSN Music Service and Napster, and neither has the CD or its tunes available for download. Is that what the two competing services mean by “music choice”?