Anyone who caught the Broken West live just before they broke up in late 2009 knows that they were at the height of their powers. After releasing two solid yet sweetly slick pop records for Merge — 2007’s I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On and 2008’s Now or Heaven — they had translated them live to a bunch sweaty, rollicking rock songs. In the wake of that band’s break-up, Ross Flournoy has moved on to his new project Apex Manor, and on The Year of Magical Drinking he has found a new burst of energy, and a fiery set of songs.
Though the title suggests some serious self-abuse, and some songs hint at images of it — there are four fingers of booze filling a mason jar in “Southern Decline”, for example — these songs don’t wallow in the loss of his band. Rather, this is the sound of Flournoy hitting his stride. After a long bout of writer’s block and self-imposed isolation, the story goes that Flournoy found inspiration in an unlikely source: NPR’s Monitor Mix songwriting contest. The song he wrote for that, “Under the Gun”, appears here as the rearview mirror in which he views his recent past. The worry of that song, the overcast tone of its guitars, is what Flournoy spends the rest of the record leaving behind.
This music is surely reminiscent of his work with the Broken West, so as Apex Manor Flournoy hasn’t reinvented himself. But he has found a new sharpness to his songs by, ironically, letting the reigns loose a little. Songs jangle, guitars buzz, riffs are tight but not rigid. With the Broken West, the slickness that made their records infectious also seemed to restrain them, but Flournoy sounds cut loose and free here. “Teenage Blood”, the charging standout in the middle of the record, features a fuzzy bass running over a bed of guitar chords, and Flournoy’s singing cuts jaggedly between restrain and release. You can hear him spitting out every word, barely reeling in the aimless energy that comes, apparently, from that new transfusion of youth he’s gotten in starting over.
There’s a directness to all of this that is awfully charming, but for its straight-ahead power-pop approach, the album finds plenty of variety in textures. Acoustics ring out clearly on “The Party Line”, which contrast well with the gauzy guitars of its predecessor “I Know These Waters Well”. The hushed dust of “Holy Roller”, complete with Flournoy singing in a near-whisper, totally shifts gears, bringing the driving record to a slower roll.
Apex Manor is still new, of course, and there are occasional growing pains. The too-simple drums of “My My Mind”, and the mid-tempo pace feels a little too clean among these other smoldering songs. Also, the overt sexuality of “Burn Me Alive” feels wholly out of place. For all the genuine discovery that comes across in this album, that song’s frankness feels a bit shallow in comparison. But, even with those mild stumbles, once you get to the churning yet drowsy closer “Coming To”, you can feel a hard-earned catharsis. When he sings, “I want to take you inside”, it sounds more far more intimate than the night moves of “Burn Me Alive”, as if Flournoy is ready to show someone how much he had things in order, as if he’s been building to that request — for someone, anyone to come inside — for quite a while.
It was a shame to lose a band like the Broken West when they seemed to just be coming into their own, but hearing The Year of Magical Drinking, it’s clear it was the right move. Despite its clear pop melodies, nothing is as easy as it seems on the first Apex Manor record, and though Flournoy has created songs that sound undeniably his, you get the impression it was a long road to get here. Frustrations of the past haunt the record, but they hold no sway over it. This is about finding a new energy to tap into. “Somehow I’m beginning to break this life,” he sighs out in “Coming To”, and this record is the sound of him rebuilding. No wonder it sounds so alive.