Before everything got granulated and genre-tagged and multihyphenated—especially before indie-folk-pop-Americana-roots rock became not just a genre but an extremely crowded field—trends in pop music generally required that aspirants plug something in: a guitar that went to 11, a Casio keyboard that went chirp, a drum machine that went boom, and onward through the extended Auto-Tune moment.
That still holds up for the fleet of electronic-oriented smashes lining the channels of the radio, many built with digital plug-in applications. Concurrently, we've rambled into a generation to whom The Avett Brothers are the grand old men of a scene whose newer proponents, like Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers, coexist in the upper realms of the charts. With the rather folksy rollick "Wake Me Up," Swedish DJ Avicii has even gotten into both sides of the action at once. Rather than screaming their angst at the world or wowing us with vogue sounds, wagonloads of bands are now moved to do just the opposite: They unplug, and they harmonize.
This brings us to Saints Apollo, a young, homespun Raleigh quintet that falls squarely within the confines of the aforementioned ascendance, in spite of a handle that conjures '90s techno stars Apollo 440 and the ultra-slick girl group All Saints. The name is not meant to evoke epic themes, nor is it meant as an ironic gesture: This is a band that deals in earthbound scenarios, and irony is not a color in its thematic palette.
Despite the roots countenance, Saints Apollo is very much a modern construction. It originated in 2010 at an Internet-organized Meetup in Cary called Parking Lot Jam, when singer-songwriter Jonathan Koo and violinist Autumn Brand, recognizing kindred musical spirits, formed a duo and fleshed it out with ads on Craigslist. They reeled in Kaitlin Grady, a classically trained cellist (in her parlance, an "orch dork") who realized cellists had the capacity to rock when she heard the Avetts and Jump Little Children. With drummer Andrew Fetch and keyboardist Rachel Broadbent, who also adds vocal harmonies, the band was complete. Galvanizing the contemporary edge, Saints Apollo even funded its self-released debut, We Are Ghosts, through a Kickstarter campaign.
It's not hard to hear why the band has, at this moment in the pop continuum, quickly built a faithful audience willing to pay in advance to hear their record. In fact, it's apparent from We Are Ghosts' mid-album standout, "By Your Side." Starting with comforting campfire guitar chug over a minimal tambourine cadence, Koo sings the first verse in a sweet, guileless tenor; then come the three-part harmonies and expertly deployed cello accents and piano lines, all funneling into beguiling chamber pop. In its complicated assurance that "I've been here all along/by your side," the song hinges on one of the record's more sophisticated lyrical offerings.
"Share My Walker," on the other hand, is a mostly a cappella let's-stay-together ditty with an air of jazzy languor, punctuated by barbershop quartet na-nas and boasting Koo's most soulful vocal. Saints Apollo almost sounds like a different band here. Side by side with the not quite folk, not quite rock of "This Lie" and the rather stiff soft rock of "Warning Signs," "Walker" is a balmy breeze that cuts right through the formalism.
Although Koo is the principal vocalist and songwriter, the band's secret weapon might be its co-founder, Autumn Brand. On songs such as the Celtic-tinged folk waltz "Slowly," where she takes the lead, her fluttering intonation recalls that of St. Vincent, cut with the stately tones of Hem's Sally Ellyson.
A disarming earthiness permeates most of these nine songs. That quality differentiates Saints Apollo, at least for the moment, from the sort of contest-winning sheen embraced by their contemporaries, local and otherwise, in the indie folk pool. But how does a band stand out from the others out there who combine an acoustic approach with an anti-star presence and make a pretty sound? This is, after all, a group whose key influences are bands that already purvey an extremely hybridized style. The danger is that the finished product is all surface beauty.
Still, at its best, We Are Ghosts shows a band capable of transcending that limitation. If they can continue to summon those senses of urgency and approachability, they might just remain interesting long beyond this current indie-folk-pop-Americana-roots rock moment.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Wax on, off."