And the award for first album name successfully punning on Joan Didion goes to: Apex Manor. So, thanks for that Ross Flournoy.
Following the demise of his former band, The Broken West, Flournoy needed a kick in the pants from Sleater-Kinney guitarist/Portlandia star/former Monitor Mix blogger Carrie Brownstein to get back to writing (apparently Didion wasn’t helping). Back in November of ’09, Brownstein laid out a challenge to her online readers: write and record a song in a single weekend. The apparently writer’s block-ed Flournoy took the bait, and “Under the Gun” (which made the cut for this album) was born. He called up Adam Vine, who helped co-write another batch of songs, and drummer Brian Whelan (also formerly of The Broken West), and the group got picked up by Merge Records for their debut.
Despite the title, this isn’t a boozy party record; instead, it’s a bright sort of melancholy, cheery guitars, and lovelorn lyrics mixing in a brightly colored cocktail. The wide-open piano, fuzzy guitar, and rambling tom patterns of opener “Southern Decline” do revel in alcohol but in its sometimes destructive power and ability to push you out of everyday life. To be sure, this ain’t Andrew W.K..
Whether it’s on the previously mentioned “Under the Gun” (which takes a sunny look at the struggles of writing) or the ambling “I Know These Waters Well”, Flournoy seems to revel in taking influences like The Replacements or Wilco and then cranking up the “Accessibility Dial” to 11. “You’re a ghost in my life, curling up in an unmade bed,” Flournoy levels in “The Party Line”, a vague, inoffensive barb to be throwing. To be honest, vague and inoffensive are words that could be used throughout the record.
“My My Mind” is smokey, a less spaced-out version of something that could’ve come off of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a difficult to place, slightly southern twang popping up here and there. The rollicking punk-turned-down of “Teenage Blood” sounds way too old for its chorus of “I’ve got teenage blood, I’ve got teenage blood running in my brain.” There’s a youthful enthusiasm running through most of the lyrics, but the style of the music, the songwriting, and the intricately controlled, studio-recorded pop-rock have nothing youthful in it, making for some awful contradictions. Plus, there aren’t any literary nods or clever punning (that misleading title!).
“Elemental Ways of Speaking” features some of the best musicianship on the record, chugging, distorted guitars, racketing drums, and floating, rounded synth tones. There isn’t any sloppy work on The Year of Magical Drinking, but that can be as much of a negative as it can a positive. The songwriting is solid, and practiced, the instrumentation spot-on, but there’s really nothing to grab your attention for a prolonged period of time, nor is there anything to provoke any real emotional response.