Album Review: Ape School – Ape School (Counter)

apeschoolApe School – The Underground.mp3
MP3: Ape School – The Underground from Demo (2003)

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MP3: Ape School – My Intention (Yppah Remix)

A recent conversation with Michael Johnson of Philadelphia-based solo project Ape School revealed a frustrating truth: tastes, and therefore influences, are now running in ever-shortening duration.

In a feature article about his new self-titled release in Remix where he was asked cite his top ten biggest influences — a list which contained works by David Bowie, Scott Walker, and the Flaming Lips — Johnson’s was met with slack-jawed bemusement by the editors. Funny, as these works have traditionally been considered fairly standard fare for such inventories. So what’s a self-described “Todd Rundgren-ripoff” destined for in this day and age, especially when his most recent work is released by the subsidiary of a label that’s primarily known for its drum and bass pedigree?

The cut-out bin, apparently. Little recognition and few reviews have followed. Which is a shame, as records which involve this much sheer songwriting craft are uncommon. The Rundgren comparisons go deeper than Johnson’s Philly homebase: like Rundgren, this is pop music that rewards the thinking and the unthinking among us. Listen in on “That’s OK,” a plaintive yet playful, fragile diary entry with a trapdoor hook:

That’s OK – Ape School

One could make the argument for a direct lineage with Johnson’s previous project, the Florida-based Sub Pop band Holopaw, as there is a head-and-heart-in-equal-portions component to that band’s work as well. However, Johnson’s embrace of aged analog synths (old Moogs and Arps, made accessible through his job as an instructor in the Music Tech Department at the University of the Arts) brings a quirkier and less “rock band” atmosphere to Ape School. “It’s Over” is a good example of that, as an ancient, dusty synth preset forms the core of the verse, with Johnson’s delicate, multi-tracked falsetto providing the lofty flight of the chorus:

It’s Over – Ape School

Although almost oppressive at first, the bent synth chords of the verse lodge themselves deep in your brain and won’t leave. And many songwriters would leave it at that. Johnson, however, has included a chorus and a melody that renders the tools on which the tune is played moot: it’s just a great song. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is art untouched by 2009, however, as the subtle feedback and xylophone that comprise the coda reveal an artist interested in texture and mood (hallmarks of our era) as much as melodiousness.

There are drawbacks to Ape School. Like so very many records, it’s two or three songs too long. These excisable songs are perhaps best described as extraneous genre exercises (most specifically, the just a little bit too cute “I Did What I Did”). But this is a record that stands outside of time, or at least the time we currently inhabit. We could argue for hours about what qualifies music as timeless, but I would proffer that melodies, hooks, and a certain thoughtfulness of craft are immutable traits of what will last. Seek out Ape School and see if you agree.

Label: Counter / Ninja Tune

Release Date: Apr 28 2009

Track list:
01 Wail To God
02 That’s OK
03 Did What I Did
04 My Intention
05 Be An Encore
06 Sigh Something
07 It’s Over
08 Caveman vs. Canary
09 The Underground
10 Deathstomp
11 Floridian Grime
12 In Time You Are
13 Rip Together Rip Apart
14 No Shame

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