Minnesota may have the most vital music scene in America, claiming responsibility not just for Bob Dylan, The Replacements, Prince and the like, but also for scores more songwriters who write the songs that make New Yorkers famous.
Still, it was a surprise to find that a local musician had imported James Apollo, a lesser-known Minnesota band, to play a couple sets in Iceland on their way through Europe. Also surprising, James Apollo sounded like Okies.
“We get that a lot. When we were in the Southwest, people said we sounded like every other band,” James Apollo told us between sets.
“In Minnesota, you get horrible voices and troubadours, we just do something different.”
To Mr. Apollo’s credit, when he does Southwestern-style music, he does it well. On their recent disc, Good Grief, and live, they produce a layered, nuanced, and smooth sound much like Chris Isaak… basically, the sound a kid in Minnesota might imagine would be played in a juke joint in Arizona.
The fault in the music was by no means the singing or the musicianship—both were smooth. Song selection and styling just seemed… bogus.
There were a few reasons for this. The first was completely out of James Apollo’s control; a young troubadour, Þórir, was asked to open for the band. Locals know Þórir is talented, but he came on and put on the best show we’ve ever seen from him. With gut-wrenchingly honest delivery, and with smart but biting lyrics, he set the bar pretty high.
The other reason James Apollo seemed phoney, other than the fact that he was singing music from the Southwest and wearing a cheesy-ass country shirt, was the fact that he sang songs he didn’t seem to have earned. The best example was a jaw-dropping lounge act version of the working man’s classic 16 Tons. To hear a golden-voiced, cheesy-smiling 20-something suburb kid on his way through Europe sing “St. Peter don’t ya’ call me cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store” was akin to the Háskóli Íslands putting on a production of Roots. (They haven’t done this yet, but I just thought I’d nip that in the bud now too.)