Apex Manor debuted earlier this year on Merge Records with The Year of Magical Drinking (2011), a fairly straightforward rock album that marks the end of frontmen Ross Flournoy and Brian Whelan’s previous outing, The Broken West. The dissolution of that band, combined with the title of the record (clearly a reference/homage to Joan Didion’s book) may lead the listener to expect a mournful set of songs about alienation, sorrow and anger. Instead, Drinking is a passionate, determined and downright charming effort. Whelan produced the set with Dan Long, and their approach is uncomplicated and direct, without appearing careless or rudimentary. Where both of The Broken West’s albums shone with pop-rock dexterity, Flournoy lets go considerably on Drinking, and the album is so much the better for it. There is an infectious energy that surges through this record, moving from the power folk of “Southern Decline” to the exuberant “Teenage Blood,” and still with some space for a few tranquil acoustic numbers, such as “Holy Roller.” It’s an excellent starting point for a band that clearly is ready for their own journey.
Apex Manor joined Film School, Melted Toys and Gregory and the Hawk at the Cafe du Nord last Thursday as part of San Francisco’s wildly popular Noise Pop Festival. In its nineteenth year, Noise Pop has launched the careers of many indie artists, and consistently brings in a wide array of talent for a week of great music around the city. This was Apex Manor’s first show in the Bay Area, and it was evident how excited they were to be playing in San Francisco. Flournoy interacted often with the audience, discussing the genesis of Apex Manor and frequently thanking the crowd for being so supportive of them in their infancy. By this point in the evening, the club was full of people buzzing with spirit and enthusiasm, and Apex Manor’s muscly and passionate rock did not disappoint.
They opened their 45 minute set with “Teenage Blood,” one of the highlights off of Drinking. It was a rollicking, foot-stomping number that immediately engaged the crowd. Whelan propelled the song forward with his spirited guitar line that recalled the best of 90’s garage rock, and Flournoy attacked the vocals with an ebullient zeal. They followed “Blood” with “Under the Gun,” which was much more bass-heavy and robust than the album version. The band provided tight harmonies, giving the song a great shimmering sound that certainly made the audience forget the inclement February weather outside the club. “I Know These Waters Well” was next, which prominently features the quiet verse/loud chorus device so ingrained in the rock/pop canon. While slightly formulaic of a song, it worked fine on stage.
“Southern Decline” got a bit lost in a muddied mix from the soundboard, favoring Whelan’s blurry guitar, which unfortunately made it close to impossible to discern any lyrics. “The Party Line” followed, and while riff-heavy, the sound was more even and Andy Creighton’s driving bass line invigorated the song. They then played “My My Mind,” Drinking’s lead single and clear fan favorite. It was the main ballad of the evening, but did not feel trite or derivative; rather, Flournoy’s baritone vocals were warm and full, Derek Brown’s drumming was judicious and Adam Vine’s guitar and harmony were spot on. It’s a song that takes time to grow and expand, and it’s not exactly an instantly catchy melody, but it’s a well-constructed and earnest pop/rock song that engaged the audience and played to the band’s strengths.
The second half of the set was devoted to covers and Broken West songs. Surprisingly, it’s fairly clear the divide between the sound of the Broken West numbers and those of Apex Manor, and quite frankly, the latter are much more compelling. Three Broken West pieces was excessive– it is a shame they didn’t play “Holy Roller” or “Elemental Ways of Speaking;” however, since this is Apex Manor’s first tour, it’s definitely forgivable. By shifting focus to Broken West, though, Flournoy & co. lost a bit of the focus of the set, so hopefully with more practice and road testing they’ll emphasize Apex Manor songs even further.
All in all, Apex Manor performed a solid set for the Noise Pop Festival. Their sound is unfussy and sincere, and Flournoy’s singing is candid, heartfelt and mature. He’s a captivating frontman with an impressive grasp of crowd dynamics, knowing how to play to their energy and still lead them to want more. If Apex Manor keeps up this momentum, they will definitely be a must-see act on their subsequent tours.
Under the Gun
I Know These Waters Well
The Party Line
My My Mind
Gwen, Now and Then (The Broken West song)
Perfect Games (The Broken West song)
Jump Into the Fire (Harry Nilsson cover)
Down in the Valley (The Broken West song)