t this point, the misuse of Andrew Whiteman on Broken Social Scene records is approaching nearly George Harrison levels. A ferocious electric guitarist, Whiteman is probably partly responsible for BSS morphing into Yo La Tengo halfway through 2005’s eponymous sophomore album, a welcome and successful transformation that neither band seemed to realize was happening. Still, he hasn’t matched his lone vocal contribution, the loose, warm “Looks Just Like the Sun” from You Forgot It in People. Whiteman reprised the role on his debut turn as Apostle of Hustle, 2004’s Folkloric Feel, but there’s no doubt that Broken Social Scene missed Whiteman’s naturalist pop.
As enjoyable as Folkloric Feel was, its replay lifespan clocked in somewhere just under two weeks, and no one knows if it’s aged well because no one’s taken it off the shelf since. Apostle of Hustle’s second disc, National Anthem of Nowhere, is a slightly improved redux of Folkloric Feel, full of agile, mid-tempo pop-rock songs performed under the guise of indie rock.
Take the album title seriously: Apostle of Hustle brand a particularly rootless style of rock music, indebted to folk and blues only inasmuch as all “rock” music is. Whiteman’s devotion to Cuban music shows in two tracks sung in Spanish, but they otherwise differ little from the remainder of National Anthem.
As a result, National Anthem, is monochrome and even somewhat sterile, characteristics often overcome by Whiteman’s increasingly excellent craftsmanship. Whiteman leaves big, brash choruses for less modest songwriters; instead, he excels at writing sublime verses, apparent on the blog-approved title track and “‘My Sword Hand’s Anger.’” Whiteman writes aggressively, too—see the Waits-ian “Haul Away” or the jaunty thrust of “Fast Pony for Victor Jara”—but the almost omnipresent acoustic guitars and Whiteman’s own smooth tenor turn anything that might resemble “anger” into “slightly urgent prodding.”
As a lyricist, Whiteman does well to avoid maudlin sentimentality and silly, obvious rhymes, but no one who listens to this album will really have any idea what the fuck he’s going on about, and that…well, it complicates things. National Anthem is full of well-constructed images, but Whiteman is neither a narrative writer nor an obviously involved symbolist—isolated ideas will resonate, but never entire songs. At the end of the day, a line like “You run / You fly / You’re chased by ghosts / You cannot say goodbye” sounds like it could mean something, but I’ve no idea quite what. I’m not emotionally invested enough in Apostle of Hustle to shoehorn meaning into these songs; I suspect few people are.
Still, National Anthem is worthwhile for “Cheap Like Sebastian” and “A Rent Boy Goes Down,” two tart pop numbers that fall right into Whiteman’s wheelhouse: vanilla rock songs that, while not exactly the pillars of a world-beater, would’ve been succinct replacements for some of BSS’s stabs at atmosphere and ambiance. The better of the two, “A Rent Boy Goes Down,” slides between Cuban-inflected bursts of electric guitar and a flippant piano, reminiscent of the tragically ignored late-’90s alt-crooners Creeper Lagoon. Strong as it is, “A Rent Boy Goes Down” won’t stick in your head long; its most lasting contribution is writing a perfect epitaph for National Anthem: “You’re gold for a moment but gold isn’t anything you can keep.”