To call Apex Manor’s first release a debut is a bit misleading. Frontman Ross Flournoy was the front man of The Broken West until they split up in 2009, and this new band finds him back together with another Broken West-er, Brian Whelan, as well as Adam Vine, also a collaborator from that era. With this history and the general sound of the album, one should be forgiven for thinking of Apex Manor as a new phase of that earlier enterprise. And as much as that may seem like a dig, it’s really not meant as such.
Perhaps it’s just a function of timing, but The Year of Magical Drinking strikes me as an album with something interesting to say, a quality only increased by knowing where Flournoy is coming from. Fortunate enough to have found a place on the Merge roster, The Broken West never had a real breakthrough moment. Their mix of influences manifested in something most easily situated under the inclusive umbrella of power-pop but never quite packed either of their full-length releases with enough catchy hooks to stand out in that genre. With Apex Manor, the music has shifted into a looser rocking sound, with more world-weary lyrics to match.
There’s still plenty of pop melodicism to be had, especially on tracks like “The Party Line,” where the stealthy, but still sweet, backing vocals offer an uplifting counterpoint to Fluornoy’s more shambling presence. But the core sound of the album lands somewhere closer to the sentiment expressed in its title. This isn’t a young man out to find love or set the town afire; it’s the expression of a man who’s been knocked around a bit, found solace in momentarily checking out, but who ultimately wants to connect with his (now older) audience. Sure, there’s some claim that “Teenage Blood” still runs through his veins, but it’s really only a songsmith getting on in his years who’s going to need to express that.
And in the light of this shift in maturity, the relevance of the name change becomes most apparent. Rather than fizzling out with age, Fluornoy is an artist who clearly channels the weight of his life lessons into deeper songwriting and performance. The bittersweet “Holy Roller” is perhaps the best thing he’s committed to tape, and, not coincidentally, it’s also his most subtle and subdued.