Ape School – S/T (Counter)
A chance discovery like the one Michael Johnson made prior to recording this album (his first under the Ape School title) can shape a recording and give it focus, or it can restrict it. Happily, Johnson’s discovery was a beautiful old Moog (apparently the fourth ever made by Mr. Moog himself), and its ghostly presence is something of an underpinning drone throughout this self-titled opus. While that sonic territory has been infinitely mined by less Moog-heavy artists like The Sleepy Jackson and all the sunshine-pop references therein is of minor detraction, but the sun still shine brightly through the cracks.
It seems that each song has its own concept, its own chosen timbre that defines its brief existence. Be it a particular guitar tone, a lolloping rhythm or a wash of that omnipresent Moog, there’s always one meme that separates each track from the next. The inherent danger lies in relying on solely that, and omitting much of a melody or inspiring delivery. Much of Ape School is well-crafted and functional, but it needed a little more consideration of its performance to elevate it to the great height Johnson is clearly capable of attaining. The meandering The Underground is probably the most ambitious cut here, ushering in a ponderous melody amongst light sonic deconstructions, channelling the likes of Gainsbourg as meddled-with by Jason Lytle.
Deathstomp is impressive in its width of aural intensity, but ultimately a little limp. This is, crucially, a song that will only work at gargantuan volume, a diseased glam romp through a plot of land shared by Goldfrapp and Marc Bolan. With that all-important volume dial turned up, it sounds majestic. Turned to a moderate level, the intensity dies thanks to Johnson’s ever-laconic vocals. If he were to commit to the sound a little more (and not just on this one example), a world of performative contrast might open up before him. Different shades, trills and ticks are what makes an interesting vocal performance. With his attractively lazy approach up against all this sonic majesty, it’s inevitably a jarring battle that, while diverting, could have been much improved.
Ape School leaks promise and mastery, but is held back by conceptual and aesthetic confusion. It’s one thing to juxtapose two styles of delivery, but to do so when neither force might stand up alone is a shame. The Moog discovery should have been a more involving and focused one. Though it permeates the record, it does little to inform it and shape it, and the same might be said of the vocals. A shame, because Michael Johnson is a clear, clear talent.
This is out on Counter on July 6th. Bit early, this. Go here.