Album Review: N.A.S.A. – The Spirit of Apollo

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In the same vein as Handsome Boy Modeling School, Think Differently Music, and Thievery Corporation, N.A.S.A. (North America South America)’s The Spirit of Apollo is yet another attempt at creating a well put together collection of guest heavy recordings. These exercises, regardless of the names or who is behind the project, usually turn out to be a bit patchy. Like films with all-star casts, there’s nothing more difficult than bringing a diverse group of talent together for one relatively short effort (see: He’s Just Not That Into You).  This being said, there’s no doubting that the guys of N.A.S.A have assembled quite the army of musicians, equipped with both rookie and veteran members of music’s elite class. The effort is a literally overwhelming assortment of creative geniuses, and this almost goes without saying. But sadly, the potential of the names on the bill seems to overshadow the results. This is not to say that The Spirit of Apollo is a failure by any means, because it is not.  But really, how good can throwing all these people together really turn out?

At the project’s core, we’ve got a DJ duo consisting of self-proclaimed lifelong friends, Squeak E. Clean and DJ Zegon. The story goes that these two DJs made some pretty eclectic beats, which were interesting enough to garner the participation of the various artists who appear on the record. When it comes down to actually listening to the album, the beats are fine, but they really aren’t that noteworthy. With just about every style of production on the record, there’s a taste of everything, but things undoubtedly could be stronger given the hype. What we have here is exactly what we would expect, a group of star-studded songs, some good, some okay, and some completely forgettable. In theory, do I want to hear David Byrne and Tom Waits sing beside RZA and Ghostface? Yes!  Will it actually be good? Probably not. But hell, I have to hear it, don’t I?

And hear it I did, but not without all the effort’s pre-release hype situated comfortably in the corner of my mind. Of course, I was not expecting normalcy in the slightest, and prepared myself for a total mindfuck before ultimately pressing the play button.

The Spirit of Apollo begins with one of the most explicitly clear introductions I have ever heard.  It literally introduces the project, explaining the group’s name, the idea behind it, and what the project sets out to do, all spoken by the collection’s different collaborators. It’s clear that N.A.S.A. is pretty serious about the idea of bridging the gap between differences in culture and ideologies through music, but it’s this seriousness that almost detracts from the quality of the actual listening experience. It’s hard to take a record seriously when it throws a bunch of crazy artists together, stirs them around, and simultaneously expresses an overarching theme of musical diplomacy. N.A.S.A. will not change the world through The Spirit of Apollo and should not assume the responsibility. This record is supposed to be fun, not serious. But, on with it.

After the introduction, the real stuff hits us, first with the likes of David Byrne, J5’s Chali 2na, and the Gift of Gab on “The People Tree”. It’s a solid start to an album with a great deal of potential. Byrne is perfect, but I can’t help thinking it sounds way too similar to “The Heart’s a Lonely Hunter” by Thievery Corporation. Nonetheless, like on the aforementioned song, it is due to Byrne’s signature sound and prior work with Brian Eno and the Talking Heads that he seems to fit in perfectly with what is going on musically. I guess that’s why he was chosen for two songs, which are unfortunately placed side by side as the album’s first two tracks, instead of being spread throughout the record. By pairing them up, there exists a stark contrast in quality, the latter being noticeably weaker than the first, even with the help of Chuck D.  On the second, “Money”, Byrne and Chuck denounce money as “the root of all evil.” Yeah, we get it, but trite is one word that comes to mind.

Next, Method Man and E-40 join forces for the typical beat bearing “N.A.S.A. Music”. With Method Man lines like “If I was Paris Hilton you wouldn’t stop my car/you’d be in the back trying to pop my bra” it’s hard to save this track, even if Meth is the one given the task. Soon, however, the collection’s first standout track appears in the form of “Way Down” featuring RZA, John Frusciante, and a female vocalist named Barbie Hatch. With a low-key funk beat typical of RZA production, RZA spits out word after word under his thick Brooklyn accent, vocal stylings that could make even a Hannah Montana song sound grimy. The song’s hook consists of female vocals, which are affecting, and the track holds together.  This standout, however, is followed by the not-so-good KRS-One lead “Hip Hop”. The track utilizes throwback vinyl scratch production while KRS decries the now cliché argument that old hip-hop trumps the new stuff. I don’t know if it’s just me, but this whole “controversy” needs to be taken up somewhere else, and not in the music that I listen to.  Whoops, did I just rule of 2/3 of Hip Hop? Sorry. The track’s beat tries to make up for it’s boring subject matter, but it isn’t enough to save the track.

Though highlights come and go, the true pinnacle of the effort, however, undoubtedly reveals itself as “Spacious Thoughts”.  If ODB wasn’t enough for you on the preceding song, N.A.S.A. rounds up Tom Waits and Kool Keith, arguably two of the most interesting minds in the whole of music. As a space age epic beat (think Dan the Automator) introduces Keith, the former Octagynecologist speaks nostalgically of music, the NFL, and other miscellaneous subjects. Then Tom Waits’s shredded vocals enter, and the guy just steals the show. Hopefully by now you already know, but Tom Waits is fucking cool. Aside from all the detractions, his overpowering raspy vocals sound surprisingly at home. Maybe that’s because of his almost hip-hop influenced work on Real Gone, but this is a track worth hearing. Adding anybody else into the mix would have been way too much to handle. Kanye West’s track comes next as the second best that Spirit has to offer. With a nice electronic beat, a catchy hook sung by Lykke Li, Kanye west and Santogold (now Santi Gold?) trade verses to make for a nice pop song.

As the album progresses, weak, decent, and strong songs are interspersed throughout the album’s seventeen tracks. Run-ins with a back-from-the-grave ODB chanting “Wu Tang,” George Clinton emulating TV on the Radio, and Del and Ghostface stepping in, reveal that there’s certainly enough talent to go around here. As an album, however, not so shockingly, the record is disjointed. There’s simply too much diversity here for it to be cohesive, and the few gems that do show up simply exist as separate entities. There are enough great songs to ignite the dance floor at your next party, but as a complete work, it doesn’t fair so well. The highlights should not be neglected, and each song is worth a listen, but don’t look for a classic album here. Sadly The Spirit of Apollo doesn’t exactly blast us off to somewhere we’ve never been before, but merely reminds us that very rarely is the feat possible.

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