Album Reviews

James Apollo – Good Grief

(Aquarium) UK release date: 8 May 2006

This gentle, lo-fi to the point of minimalist, acoustic slice of Americana would be just the ticket for a last bourbon around the dying embers of a desert bonfire or last orders in a dusty ghost town somewhere in the anonymous Midwest.

Good Grief’s brushed cymbals and whispered lyrics are helped along by the talents of Low‘s Adam Lazlo, helping out in the production studio and ensuring that James Apollo knows exactly when less is more. A few faster bars here, a hint of Latin back beat there, but never enough to ruin the effect of a lost Django soundtrack of a lonesome singer/songwriter who’s drifted into town with a six-string and a heavy heart.

All through the album, there’s little more than a fractured guitar, the occasional brushed cymbals and drums made from old suitcases to tell James Apollo’s 13 tales of “sweet liberty and sweet hearts” amid slow blues and the sound of tumbleweed blowing across dusty musical crossroads.

Apollo hails from Libertyville, Arkansas, and the music he produces sounds exactly what you would expect of someone from Libertyville, Arkansas and just in case that’s not enough, one of the songs is even named after his hometown. But his fragile guitar and fractured vocals paint images of a lone drifter who’s long left home behind: if Beyond Nashville ran an outdoor festival, this is the music you’d find in the 3.00am chillout zone.

The barely-there-at all acoustic opener, Prelude, Colonel Travis, sets the scene perfectly, conjuring images of a sensitive cowboy with battered guitar serenading barmaids in half-empty saloons before disappearing though the all-pervasive smoke before the sun comes up.

Lyrics kick in on second track Alamo, but they don’t spoil the effect of whispered tales of broken hearts over brushed cymbals, and though the pace picks up somewhat on Spring Storm, it’s all relative, just enough to get your foot tapping before Dead Men Weigh More slows things down again for a wistful lament followed by the hometown tale of Libertyville, which stomps along compared to some of its predecessors.

The gossamer riffs of Long Rope and the jazz piano of Loneliness sway gently in time to cracked, fragile vocals that hardly seem to be there at all, mysterious, desperate and untouchable, drifting into town to break girls hearts from afar before their singer slinks out of town again in time to the slow beat of a haunted drumkit and the whisper of a spaghetti Western soundtrack.

There are faster tracks: Mercenary Tango introduces the Latin backbeat its name implies, but so slowly it sounds decidedly sinister. The (ironically titled) more upbeat Slow Burn is almost rocking out by the end but even these belong in the late night saloon bar once all the lights are out and the gunslingers have gone home, suggesting that Apollo has picked up their influences by drifting just far enough into Mexico to have this soul bruised on both sides of the border before returning back to the crossroads with his guitar strap between his legs.

The eponymous album ender Good Grief picks up the pace to remind you that perhaps not everything’s lost but even this is beautiful, tender, whisky soaked and lonely, the perfect soundtrack to an evening under the stars with a bottle of bourbon and a broken heart.

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James Apollo – Good Grief