On the Up and Up 

Apollo Up!’s newest is a bracing, dynamic and thoroughly enjoyable affair

“We shuffle our shoes now,” begins Chariots of Fire, the new album from Nashville’s Apollo Up! And that’s about the closest thing you’ll find to a parallel with the 1981 film of the same name.

by Steve Haruch

“We shuffle our shoes now,” begins Chariots of Fire, the new album from Nashville’s Apollo Up! And that’s about the closest thing you’ll find to a parallel with the 1981 film of the same name; there’s nary a reference to long runs on the beach, England or the Olympic Games. Ditto for droning synth or piano instrumentals the movie’s composer Vangelis might offer up for slow-motion inspiration. What the album holds instead is the kind of surging, kinetic rock that Apollo Up! have become known for, and it’s their best collection of work to date.

From the stirring opening track, “Walking the Plank,” Chariots is a bracing, dynamic and thoroughly enjoyable affair. Particularly impressive is singer Jay Leo Phillips, who’s progressed from a near-dead ringer for former Jawbox frontman J. Phillips (no relation) and expanded his range. All over Chariots, he finds room for his voice to dance around the jagged edges of the instruments. On “Situation: Hot,” Phillips comes close to sounding like a raspy-throated Elvis Costello, nearly crooning one minute and then singing the hell out of the chorus with post-punk swagger the next. His charismatic singing drives the record as much as the accomplished musicianship, something that can’t really be said of the band’s debut, Light the End and Burn It Through. You’ll hear Apollo Up! referred to as a math rock band from time to time, and while they’ve clearly studied their riffing arithmetic and certainly bust out the off-kilter, interlocking stuff, they’re a rock band first and foremost. Their songwriting has gotten sturdier and more accessible, and Chariots finds the band succeeding at much wider variety of melodic ideas and textural asides. On “Even If You Don’t Die,” they surprisingly throw down a descending chord progression that’s positively bluesy; “Tennessee for Victory” is a rollicking number that recalls the straight-rocking Ted Leo & the Pharmacists song, “The Ballad of the Sin-Eater” (minus the U.N. allegory). Though recorded in the same studio with basically the same personnel as their first record (at Battle Tapes with Jeremy Ferguson), Chariots is vastly superior in production value. Mastering by John Golden certainly doesn’t hurt the cause here, either; this is a bright, crisp-sounding rock record churning with trebly goodness. And it’s certainly a blast of fresh air that Chariots seeks to expand the band’s sound while building on their tight, cohesive playing. The only misstep is “Cut Up,” a bland piece of faux funk that feels uninspired and out of place—even the horn section, while a nice surprise, can’t rescue the song from cheese. Fortunately, that’s the exception, not the rule, on this solid long player.

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