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Published: 2004/02/26
by Ray Hogan

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."

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