Apollo HeightsWhite Music For Black People
  • MONDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2007

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Back in November I read an article in the Village Voice about a band I had never heard of. I was intrigued by the word used to describe their sound: soulgazing. It essentially means a mix of soul music, shoegaze and indie rock with hip-hop style looping and drum programming. We’ve all had that moment when you’re immediately, irrationally sold on a product before seeing it or hearing it. This became my moment, but of course I had to check out some songs to make sure that my preconceptions were true (MySpace can sometimes be used for the forces of good).

Let's just say you wouldn’t be reading this if I was disappointed in any way.

“Look inside your soul! Does it make a difference in your life?!” screams lead vocalist Daniel Chavis of the Apollo Heights on the jittery and urgent “Shallow By Shallow. The aforementioned quote embodies the sound of the Heights in every way, shape and form. Lead by Danny Chavis (twin brother of Daniel), Honeychild Coleman and Monk Washington on guitars, Micah Gaugh on keyboards, and Hayato Nakao handling bass on programming duties, White Music For Black People (Manimal Vinyl) should be required listening for those who feel that the soul’s gone from rock music.

The obvious comparisons to TV On The Radio will eventually emerge given that the members of both bands are acquaintances and both bands are predominantly black. But while TVOTR’s sound is rooted in punk rock, the Heights’ sound is rooted in old soul and rhythm & blues. The comparisons will present themselves in the David Sitek produced “Disco Lights,” which includes the drum programming and swirling guitars that evoke Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. But while the Williamsburg-based band sounds distant, the Heights sound warm, inviting and comforting amid all of the chaos. Some of the aural sensibilities can be tied to Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins fame who produced four tracks on the album.

“Camus”, puts other R&B songs to shame with its pulsating, syncopated rhythms and jangly guitars before the buzz and fuzz hits the chorus. It makes one think about the bedroom without the song actually being about the bedroom. Chavis’ falsetto, like on most tracks, ranges from strong to vulnerable, from sexy to full of heartache and back again.

That heartache couldn’t be better expressed than on “Babytalk” where longing and sadness filled in Chavis singing “Everything is wonderful” sounds as if he’s fighting to believe it himself. The guitars, keyboards, bass and drum programming unite providing the aural equivalent of floating on air or taking a really nice “trip.”

Mos Def shows up near the end of the album on “Concern,” which basically involves the band playing with Mos’ usual rapping against the forces that keep that underclass down and no other vocals. I love the track, but I thought it could’ve been saved for the next Mos album (or at least for what emerged in late 2006 as “True Magic).

After a successful showing at this year CMJ music festival, a current tour of the west coast in progress, a confirmed appearance at the next SXSW and a potential tour of the U.K. in 2008, everyone should have taken notice of Apollo Heights by the end of the New Year. I’m warning you now to pick up this album. You won’t be disappointed. Merry Christmas. - Stephon Johnson

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