Apostle of Hustle National Anthem of Nowhere

[United Artists; 2007]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: indie adult-contempo, pop, easy listening, whimsical soft rock
Others: The Shins, Jack Johnson, John Mellancamp, Coldplay, Feist, Barenaked Ladies

Andrew Whiteman's Apostle of Hustle outfit started out strong with Folkloric Feel. Here was a risky, adventurous album that delivered on the high expectations one would have for a project from a Broken Social Scene member. Then that self-titled BSS turkey came out. Aside from a strong track here and there, that record just didn't intrigue like the more varied You Forgot It In People. Trying to become more focused may have been a good idea for another band, but for BSS it just didn't work (something like overcooked, cacophonous lounge music).

The same is true for Apostle of Hustle's second outing. The crisp fidelity has become even shinier, the instrumentation decidedly more restrained. The flourishes of horns, breath rhythms, keyboards and playful guitar runs all come across as rather carefully laid in rather than spontaneous. Much like Deerhunter's Cryptograms, this is an album that's shackled the ramshackle in favor of a concise statement of each idea. But unlike that album, National Anthem comes across as pleasantly ornate, rather than stoic.

Most of the songs on here are graced with a strong hook. The boppy dirge of "The Naked and Alone" (definitely one of the stronger cuts here) and the Tubes-style keyboard refrain of "Justine, Beckoning" will no doubt charm any old unsuspecting listener. The opening tracks may be the two major exceptions to this. P-fork called "My Sword Hand's Anger" Pavement-esque, and this I find to be true. True in that the track is as bloodless and art rock-lite as latter-day Pavement got to be. It's really just the most 'blah' way Whiteman could've opened the album. It doesn't help any that title track is almost as forgettable. The song is basically what a prettified outtake from one of the last BSS album's more up-tempo tracks might sound like. Things improve after this, hook-wise, but there is a somewhat constrained, professional feeling to the music that keeps the subsequent hooks from settling in properly. There's a nice sense of playfulness, but it comes across somewhat neutered after your ears are finished perking.

I think a big part of the problem is the singing. The lyrics are alternately cloying and curious, and they're sung in a pretty and formal manner. There's an overly breezy, Goo Goo Dolls kind of feel to them that naggingly undercuts the strength of the songwriting. Part of why "The Naked and Alone" works so well is that his pretty-boy vocal delivery is thoroughly tempered with deft delay and echo. The guy's obviously a studio whiz, so he should be stretching out in the tracks rather than opting for quaint-around-the-edges pop numbers. While this album is melodically and texturally rich, there's nothing quite as striking as Folkloric Feel's triumphant "Dark is What I Want."

What is on offer are some sugary, sugary tunes. And while there's generally nothing wrong with that, I can't help but feel somewhat underwhelmed. If you want records that'll whelm you -- check out The Drones. If you want some solid background music for a warm, sunny day (none of those 'round here yet), you could do a lot worse than National Anthem of Nowhere. The title may suggest something serious and conceptual, but the music within rolls blithely over you like the great state of nothingness itself.

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