February 3, 2020
Released On March 11, 2016
Sometimes I don’t read, watch, or listen to things for what may appear to be irrational reasons. If someone I don’t like enjoys something, it’ll take a lot of convincing to get me to pay attention to it. Or if an actor that bugs me for some reason or another (looking at you, Benedict Cumberbatch and Dylan McDermott) is attached to a project, there’s no way in hell I’m ever going to watch it. Which is partially why it took me so long to listen to Apes Of The State.
When I was young, it was just me and my dad for a very long time. Because of this, he took me to see all of the movies he was interested in, and that’s how I ended up seeing Wes Craven’s Monkey Shines when I was far too young for it. I say I was too young, but I remember seeing both Evil Dead II and Serpent And The Rainbow around the same age, and they didn’t bother me very much. Yet somehow that scalpel-wielding capuchin in Monkey Shines has scarred me for the rest of my life and prejudiced me against monkeys and primates of all types. I can’t even handle the MonkeyFist episodes of Kim Possible without covering my eyes (it’s worse for me the closer they are to human), and had a legit panic attack during the live-action Jungle Book‘s scenes with King Louis (I had to walk out, and my oldest told me it was a good thing I left when I did cause it only got worse).
All of this to say that it was a mistake that I avoided Apes Of The State for a few years because their name gave me shivers. What if they wrote songs about monkeys?! The horror!
Luckily (as far as I can tell), there are zero songs about primates on This City Isn’t Big Enough. What you’ll find instead are songs about the bullshittery of student loans collections, unrequited crushes, heartbreak, friendships, and sobriety.
Reader, I have been trying and trying to come up with the words that will make you want to immediately run and listen to this album, but I’m coming up short. It makes me happy. And with everything going on that makes me sad and frightened, I’ll take happiness where I can get it. Go listen.
Also, as I’m wrapping this up, I realized the “apes” in the band’s name likely came from a nickname for lead singer/guitarist April Hartman, but fuck if I’m going to try to rewrite this now. Please enjoy a chuckle at my expense… while you listen to this album.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
Anthemic folk-punk that rises past protest music into generational declarations.
I found This City Isn’t Big Enough to be surprisingly relatable from several angles. I, too, like The Mars Volta (and I’ve written about them). The Shawshank Redemption might not be my favorite movie, but it certainly has my favorite movie ending. I’ve also lived in multiple cities that have exes. I have not, however, had that awkward post-breakup run-in. It isn’t that I’ve actively tried to avoid it, but instead something that simply has not occurred. And pretty much the entirety of “Bill Collectors Theme Song” hit a little too close to home. But what I relate to more than any single concept is the overall sardonic and self-deprecating tone of the album. It’s found in small portions of the arrangements: all of “Intro” and the cartoon-y last few notes of “Conversations With The Self-Centered” and the sashaying violin in “I Listened.” Mostly, though, it’s in the lyrics and April Hartman’s delivery. Her cynical sense of humor allows for discussion (and helps to deal with?) difficult subject matter like addiction, depression, self-loathing, loneliness, and being perpetually broke ay-eff. Sometimes it’s more than once at once. I’ve struggled with a few of those myself. The album’s often mordant attitude allows two seemingly dissonant ideas to sit comfortably next to each other, like “And that was how I learned / That in order to be fixed / I had to be broken first” and “And I just really, desperately want to be your next poor decision”. Besides being relatable, the album reminded me of Patty Schemel’s memoir called Hit So Hard which, among other things, chronicles her struggles with addiction to heroin and crack, and crawling back from the edge of death as a result. When I reviewed it, I said it was both a cautionary tale and “a work designed to help lift the stigma of being an addict.” It’s an important and noble goal of the book, and I think that’s true of this work, as well.
When it comes to writing, whether in books, articles, songs, or anything else, directness is the quality I’ve come to admire most. Clarity is next to godliness, to borrow a phrase, and in that sense, This City Isn’t Big Enough is absolutely divine. It hit me during “Bill Collectors Theme Song,” when April Hartman sang “When I was just a little kid they told me I was special / Then I grew up and found out they told that to every single one of us.” When it comes to message and meaning, that lyric is pure signal — zero noise. It’s not about engineering end rhyme; that device takes a backseat to accuracy of communication. The first verse of “I Listened” is so vivid that I felt like I was there, being buried by misunderstanding in real time, knowing there’s a better version of yourself than the one surfacing at that unfortunate moment. (“I don’t know your favorite song but it’s probably by Mars Volta / ‘Cause you said you really like them when we talked / And I listened” offers a kind of quiet redemption that I want to relive over and over.) It’s tempting to reach for “stream of consciousness” as a descriptor, given how unfiltered these lyrics seem, but there’s nothing dream-like about This City Isn’t Big Enough. It’s lossless in a different way, and there’s an important paradox at work with Apes Of The State: Idiosyncrasy makes us different from one another, but we’re all united in the fact that our lives our unique. No other person can fully know the experiences you’ve had, or the challenges you contend with on a daily basis. But when art offers a lens this sharp into someone else’s life, you get to feel a little less alone. That’s what makes This City Isn’t Big Enough one of the most generous albums I’ve heard in a long, long time.
First time I listened to this, I kind of hated it. I was at work, so the volume was down and I couldn’t hear the words. I felt like someone was yelling at me from behind my monitors and every song sounded the same. If not for the song “Timeline,” which even under those suboptimal conditions evinced some nuance, I would have likely recused myself from this week’s issue. Well! What a dif’rence a day makes, as the old song goes. Let’s just say this is a very lyrically driven record. From the moment I found myself grinning broadly at the end of the first track, “Sober Intentions,” when April Hartman sings, “Hope he loves you more than I did!” I was sold. What a great kiss-off line. There’s more to it than that, however, as proven by the bittersweet stanza, “I didn’t even like you that much, but I can’t stop writing songs about you.” Anyone whose heart has been broken can relate. I’m not going to go through and break down every song, but I will say if you can’t find yourself in tracks like “Bill Collectors Theme Song” or Plate Glass Apology, you are either very lucky or you need to get out more. And if, like me, you reach for your revolver at the term “Folk Punk” (yes, ukuleles are used and abused), start with “Timeline,” a really terrific song.
Some musical solace in the face of crippling debt.
If punk could be called a “platform” in modern parlance, then when we look back on it we see that the foundation of the platform was the DIY ethos. Pick up some instruments you had no idea what to do with, drench them reverb and distortion, and pound out minimal chord progressions to move the crowd into a high-energy frenzy. Punk music was born of bands who couldn’t play, or even if they could, that wasn’t the point. Conforming to mainstream standards of “good” was exactly what it aimed to tear down and to mock. Punk bands wrote music to express anger, to howl about all manner of things. It was the very core of musical and even aesthetic counter-culture. Most importantly, it violently reclaimed the platform from corporate mainstream rock. Eventually, it devolved into the thing it most feared — pop music dressed up in punk traditions. Punk died a generation ago and we now use the label for something which resembles its roots in format only. But something else began to emerge in the past decade. That same original DIY ethos was being applied to folk music rather than rock by artists who actually could play and play very well. Strumming guitars, fiddles, banjos and mandolins, this new self-proclaimed “folk-punk” genre began popping up routinely. Interestingly, they weren’t very interested in playing traditional folk songs. They wanted to tell their own stories and express some anger or frustration about things, both serious and banal. This hybrid sound has emerged to be something new and interesting and fascinating. Apes Of The State is one such band and their album This City Isn’t Big Enough from 2016 is a high-energy collection of acoustic and bluegrass music played at punk’s pace. Vocalist and songwriter April Hartman style is quirky and belies an almost comical but relatable innocence. Her delivery feels sincere but self-deprecating. The tone of the album is relatable and positive seemingly despite their best efforts. That’s the thing about high-energy Bluegrass. Despite snarling about how the baby boomers left you laden with student debt, you still come off with something ultimately upbeat and hopeful. It’s hard not to sound ironic when you’re belting out clever lyrics about all of life’s failures and you realize everyone around you is tapping their foot, clapping along and appreciating everything you’re saying. Suddenly, your efforts to express anger and resentment at all of life’s failures starts to look a lot like success. That is the story of modern punk music and Apes Of The State are a welcome part of its new face.
Enjoying the little things while the pressure of modern society looms.
I’m trapped in the nineties. As I’ve admitted many times on OYR, I know what I know as well as nearly anyone. But I don’t have the most varied musical pallet. It’s classic hip hop, seventies soul, R&B, a little jazz, and that’s about it. These days, rarely am I moved by anything current on the charts or radio, so I can’t say I’m well informed on how this current generation sees the world. For all I know, they just want college to be free, they want to use both bathrooms, and they have absolutely zero sense of humor about anything. And that’s what so interesting about this record — This City Isn’t Big Enough provides such vivid insight into the minds of the internet generation, revealing a stark self-awareness while at the same time reinforcing stereotypes. “Bill Collectors Theme Song” may as well be a millennial’s “911 Is A Joke” by Public Enemy. It’s an alarming piece that calls attention to the financial strife of young people. But in the same instance that they know what they’re facing, it seems that they’re still a little too comfortable under a blanket of apathy to do anything about it. I got a similar feeling from “Conversations With The Self-Centered,” a narrative about a generation self-aware enough to diagnose their pitfalls, but instead of taking action they retreat to their own self-righteous bubbles to wallow in self-pity. I think for some this might inspire contempt, but I actually feel empathy. The Apes know they’re not perfect. They know they’re a bit obnoxious, see “Sober Intentions.” They key here is to open your mind, your heart, and listen to what they’re telling us about their reality. It’s very hip-hop.
There’s been a lot going on in the media lately, things in the news that are depressing — what else is new? — but what hit me hard was the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and all the other families on board that helicopter. I was never a basketball fan, but that wasn’t what was upsetting for me. It was the reminder of how final and sudden everything is, or can be, and I know this was a week ago, but it is still upsetting and relevant. The bushfires in Australia also come to mind and while there has been rain, the fires are still raging and I just feel so completely helpless about everything that is happening in the world and even in my own life. I just feel like it is a time where I need to escape, with music, with travel, in a book, whatever it is, but I just find it so difficult to deal with what is happening in the world right now. This album was honestly a breath of fresh air for me, because it took me away, but it made me think about things in a different perspective. The melodies in the tracks “Bill Collectors Theme Song” and “Strangers” were definitely what I needed to hear right now, emotional but hopeful (what I took away from it anyways) and honestly, the lyrics in “Bill Collectors Theme Song” are way too relatable to me right now, and that’s all I ever want from music. That is why I appreciate music so much. You can listen to an artist you’ve never even heard before, but all you need is one song that will hit you right and you can relate, you can understand what they were feeling when they were writing or composing the music… and it just helps. In this society right now where feeling helpless seems to be the norm, it’s always reassuring to me to have something that makes you feel like you’re not alone.
I’m curious about a connection between The Beatles’ classic “Taxman” and Apes Of The State’ “Bill Collectors Theme Song,” perhaps the perfect representation of the band’s style and approach, even if you may pick another song as your favorite. (Spoiler: I’m team “I Listened.”) Obviously, they’re different songs, but it was April Hartman belting this line that really got me to pause for a second: “Cause I never wanted to be every single stereotype of a white middle class 20-something pissed at the economy.” Yeah, that definitely has me shooting dagger eyes into past George Harrison. Especially looking at how we view the 1% today, how entitled is “Taxman?” Seriously? Get the hell over yourself. And I love George Harrison — best Beatle hands-down with the best solo career hands-down — but man, if you had both songs on in your music library and they popped up back-to-back in some cruel shuffle order, you might just want to drive your car into a wall. Maybe if the taxman hadn’t been demonized generations earlier, we wouldn’t be stuck looking for solace in a ukulele every time we get a bill in the mail. But that’s our reality, one April Hartman excels in dissecting even if she does so in a fragmented manner. There’s humor galore, like the endlessly funny “I didn’t follow cat instructions” in “Cats In Heat,” but that humor often speaks to a darker truth about our generation being woefully unprepared for life’s responsibility because our parents were too busy demanding participation trophies for us and then chastising us for getting them decades later. (Thanks, generic parents!) There’s a lot of threads to follow here, something that might seem foolish considering this record is best when consumed as an entire conversation, one with errant asides and inappropriate anecdotes that all paint a bigger picture about life in general, whether you’re employed or in-between, married or single, independent or reliant, optimistic or pessimistic. It’s a conversation worth immersing yourself in, whether you just need to find a laugh about how crooked things really are or if you just want to empathize with the feeling of running into an ex somewhere. Whichever you’re in need of, Apes Of The State have you covered, with an endless supply of engaging lyrics and folk-punk charm.
Pacific Northwest Bound by Mike McKenna Jr
Chosen By Chelsea Kostrey