Sing while you slave

Keri Carlson

On “The Sweet Unknown,” James Apollo sets a scene of desert hot days cooled by nights at hole-in-the-wall bars filled with cigarette smoke and femme fatales. This piquant imagery is fashioned from twangy, Southwest guitars, a dusty bass and gentle, jazzy drum beats. The album comes together like a story. Each song presents another twist in the plot.

Although all the songs on “The Sweet Unknown” are agreeable, something just doesn’t sit right. What that something is becomes apparent a couple of tracks into the album: Apollo’s shortcoming is his voice. There is nothing particularly off-putting about his voice, but his high and unsteady vocals come across as too young, innocent and unaffected by tobacco for his tales of dark and sultry nightlife to be convincing. Many of these songs would sound fine on their own, but a whole album’s worth causes them to become lost.

Nevertheless, by continuously switching tempos, Apollo does succeed at keeping listeners on their toes. The best example, “Crawl When You Come Down,” moves back and forth from caressing croons to moments of intense frenzy, where the entire band pounds at its instruments like toddlers who just discovered the pots in the kitchen.

Apollo has not written a bad song. In fact, the low point of the album is “Sixteentons,” his cover of the Merle Travis-penned classic. Instead of cursing the system, he packs the song with so much pep it resembles the Seven Dwarfs’ chipper “Heigh Ho.”

Despite “Sixteentons,” it’s difficult to really criticize “The Sweet Unknown.” Yet all this album does is make you want to listen to a Tom Waits record. Waits’ songs also revolve around temptation, desperation and regret, but with a low and raspy voice that feels like a seedy alleyway and sends shivers down the spine.

James Apollo will perform Thursday at Glueks,

(612) 338-6621.