At Apogee – Mr. Smolin
First David Gans, now Barry Smolin — two hosts of Grateful Dead-related
programs whose own music owes little stylistically to the band on which
they've built their broadcast careers. Smolin, who takes on the professorial
role by calling himself "Mr. Smolin" and organizes his web site with
like "Office Hours" and "Syllabus," might be best described as a modern
psychedelic minimalist with a poet's bent.
The 12 songs that comprise At Apogee are both heavy and heady, with
occasional levity of pure fun to mix it up. Accompanied by sparse
instrumentation, Smolin usually prefers to present his tales with
encryption. "Casper" seeks to examine the young boy whose premature death
produced the friendly ghost. The title track has an epic quality to it and
paints in vivid detail the mixed feelings (loneliness yet rushes of energy)
of hanging in deep space. These are two of the strongest tracks on the disc
because the open space that breathes in the music. It's sometimes the lack
of something that allows for the strongest statement.
At other times, the singer-pianist presents his thoughts in a more populist
fashion. "The Earth Keeps Turning On," which reminds me of R.E.M.'s "Shiny
Happy People" for no particular reason, seems aimed at grade-schoolers with
its near nursery rhyme basic.
With Stew of The Negro Problem as producer, At Apogee finds a nice
foil for Smolin's wandering mind. Never intruding, the musical backdrop is
nonetheless strong with wah-wah guitars, piano and horn sections providing
calculated embellishment at the right moments. It's a winning equation of
intellect and instrumentation. If the disc has a major flaw, it's likely to
be Smolin's voice. He's overly emotive but sometimes treads dangerously
close to sounding like Kermit the Frog taking on "The Rainbow Connection."
It's often at odds with the mostly cerebral subject matter.
Still, At Apogee is a surprising and assured debut from the Los
DJ and host of "The Music Never Stops."