The Apostles of Arts & Crafts

Apostle of Hustle frontman Andrew Whiteman may be better known as the E Street Band-costumed, rock-posturing lead guitarist of Toronto’s Broken Social Scene. But don’t be fooled by the fedora and the high-kicks; Whiteman is as much a “we hate your hate” softie as the rest of the Social Scenesters. “National Anthem of Nowhere,” the first of several sophomore albums due from Broken Social Scene side projects in 2007, boasts cleaner production and Latin rhythms while preserving the collective’s heart. Nevertheless, the record only partially distinguishes itself from Arts & Crafts’ stable of good-to-mediocre side projects.

Since its birth in the Torontopia scene in 2002, Arts & Crafts, the bands’ label, has more or less adhered to RZA’s “five-year plan” for the Wu-Tang Clan; as such, “National Anthem of Nowhere” is the first for Apostle of Hustle not produced by the label’s in-house producer Dave Newfeld. The buoyant soup of guitars and repeated crescendos that he favors are therefore absent.

What remains is cleaner — a sort of rhythmic pop, guitar-based but not guitar-focused. For a lead guitarist, Whiteman shows little interest in guitarmanship and great interest in the rhythm section. From the thumping dance-floor beat anchoring the otherwise syncopated opening track “‘My Sword Hand’s Anger’” to the crashing cymbals of “The Naked and Alone,” the playful percussion infuses the record with a poppy levity akin to Paul Simon’s “Graceland” (in emotion if not ethnic tradition).

Often the rhythm is one of the subtly but unmistakably Latin touches that Whiteman claims to have found inspiring. Certainly the guitar style, particularly on “Fast Pony for Victor Jara,” reflects the inflections Whiteman adopted after visiting his Cuban godmother. Lyrical references to famous Latin vocalists (Jara and Carlos Gardel), not to mention two tracks sung in Spanish, make the influence more overt.

Nevertheless, the album, on first listen at least, is less than compelling, partially because of the similarity between some of its tracks and those of Whiteman’s other band. Whiteman claims that “‘National Anthem of Nowhere’ is for everyone who feels that they have no voice or can’t be heard,” a motto very much in keeping with Broken Social Scene’s ethos. Indeed the title track sounds incredibly like that collective — even without Newfeld’s production — thanks largely to a prominent Brendan Canning-esque bassline and a brassy conclusion. (The song’s live debut, in fact, was courtesy Broken Social Scene.)

Even “Cheap Like Sebastian,” a standout track on “National Anthem of Nowhere,” is marred by the band’s failure to distinguish itself from its elder Arts & Crafts sibling. The song is certainly accomplished (and, as with all of her vocal performances, guest Lisa Lobsinger moves closer to proving she’s not merely an Emily Haines understudy), but not enough is done to give Apostle of Hustle ownership of the song.

Ultimately, like its debut “Folkloric Feel,” Apostle of Hustle’s new album grows on the listener. Deeper tracks like “Justine, Beckoning,” with its melodic dual guitar parts and power-pop chorus, shine on repeated listens. Yet “National Anthem of Nowhere” cannot entirely rise above its side-project status and come into its own as more than an enjoyable but forgettable listen.

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