Apex Manor main man Ross Flournoy apparently spent much of 2009 in a state of idyllic inactivity, “staring at the San Gabriel Mountains,” he told his label, and “sitting on the porch… splitting tallboys with the gardeners who worked nearby.” Cushy, maybe, but also dangerous, the sort of game plan (or lack thereof) that for most people could end in alcoholism or debilitating sadness. For Flournoy, though, it ended in The Year Of Magical Drinking, a powerfully uncomplicated rock album.
Apex Manor is Flournoy, Brian Whelan, Adam Vine and Andy Creighton. Flournoy and Whelan are former members of L.A. quintet the Broken West, which released two full-lengths before disbanding in 2009, leaving Flournoy adrift in Pasadena, Calif. Things changed when he took notice of a songwriting contest hosted by NPR’s Monitor Mix. The contest asked songwriters to record and submit a song over the course of a weekend, and Flournoy, victim to writer’s block, took the opportunity, hoping a strict deadline would get things moving. It did. He came up with “Under The Gun,” track two on The Year Of Magical Drinking. It’s a super-catchy, driving number, and charmingly self-referential to boot: It’s about, in part, having to write a good song in almost no time at all. It marked the end of a dry spell.
On the whole, the remaining nine tracks follow suit — a good thing, because the best moments on The Year Of Magical Drinking are the straightforward, gleeful, and catchy ones. “Southern Decline,” the opener, begins with a simple and insistent strum, warmly overdriven. It’s a triumphant sound, unpretentious and celebratory, a 4/4 fuck-you to bad times and doubt. It’s a return to the good things in life, or, more accurately, to the good things in rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a rediscovery, and not a self-conscious rehashing; a rarity these days, and something to be cherished.
The Year Of Magical Drinking continues with “I Know These Waters Well” and “Party Line,” both jubilant, both hook-laden, both featuring big, big drums. Flournoy’s voice sounds like Jeff Tweedy’s, except snotty and adolescent. It’s high in the mix, a major presence throughout, and a close second to the group’s well-worn distortion pedal. You’ll notice some backing vocals, too, if you listen carefully: That’s Ivan Howard of The Rosebuds, and Annie Hayden of Spent.
The album’s weaker moments are its slower ones. While 10 consecutive rockers might not have worked, instances of wistfulness and finger picking are, if not forced, simply not as strong as their cathartic counterparts. “My My Mind,” while pretty, feels too much like an obligatory mid-album slow jam. “Holy Roller,” hushed and hymn-like, has its strengths, too, but it pales in comparison to the harder stuff. The penultimate track, “Burn Me Alive,” is an unpleasant detour, achieving a sort of trite “smoky bar” feel by way of a needlessly eclectic rhythm track. Skip it, and go straight for the album’s closer, “Coming To,” a welcome return to form. It’s catchy and, in contrast with the two previous songs, it’s fast. (There’s even a cowbell.)
In one of the album’s most badass moments Flournoy, channeling Iggy Pop, sings, “I got teenage blood running through my veins.” It sounds less exclamatory than revelatory, as if, in returning to the studio, the Apex Manor frontman discovered in himself a new youthfulness, and a new desire to rock. With the help of a very solid rhythm section, Flournoy’s desire has become manifest. Here’s to his blood staying teenaged for as long as possible.