Apollo 440 – Dude Descending a Staircase

Time for a little debate: double albums – good or bad?

What we’ll probably end up agreeing is that sometimes they’re great; other times not so much. And this one is an equally mixed bag – ten years ago this week saw the release of Apollo 440‘s fourth album Dude Descending a Staircase. A 95-minute collection of collaborations with a wide range of artists, including rappers and rock legends, it’s certainly got a lot going for it – perhaps it just lost its way somewhere?

Four albums in, Apollo 440 had seen their moment in the limelight a couple of years earlier with the huge hits Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Dub (1997), Lost in Space (1999), Stop the Rock (1999) and Charlie’s Angels (2000). Clearly looking for something new, they then spent three years locked away before Dude Descending a Staircase (2003) turned up. It’s completely different and unexpected, which is to be applauded – I think the trouble is, it just isn’t particularly good.

The first track is also the title track, a collaboration with hip hop group The Beatnuts, which has some of Apollo 440‘s signature production sounds and some brilliant lyrics, making it pretty good all round. As with what follows, it’s pretty good, but it isn’t particularly amazing unfortunately.

The second track is one of several pleasant but unremarkable moments, Hustler’s Groove,  and as with its companions Electronic Civil Disobedience and Time is Running Out, it’s OK, but just doesn’t have anything particular to grab you and make you remember it for more than a few minutes.

Disco Sucks is better, but still not quite as exceptional as anything on the three preceding albums. You can hear some of the energy and attitude which made the group famous, but somehow not quite all of it.

The artwork is worth a special mention – as with the album as a whole it’s completely unlike anything they had done before. Also as with the album, and also the lead single, it takes inspiration from a 1912 painting by Marcel Duchamp called Nude Descending a Staircase, but instead of a psychedelic lady, it shows a cartoon cat. It’s certainly unusual.

A lot of tracks are certainly OK, and it might even be easier to like them on a more compact, better formed album. N’existe Pas and 1, 2, 3, 4 are both good tracks which fall into this category. As with roughly half of the tracks on the album, the former is actually credited to The Stealth Sonic Orchestra rather than Apollo 440, a distinction which they had never quite made to this degree. It’s difficult to know what happened here – is this album in fact a combination of what should have been two releases?

Escape to Beyond the Planet of the Super Ape originally appeared as the b-side to Charlie’s Angels 2000 three years previously, and it still had some of the energy that they seemed to have lost in the intervening period, putting it among the best of the tracks on the album. It’s an instrumental driven by dramatic pad / brass sounds, which almost sounds like a modern remix of something from the 1960s, and it’s also a lot better than any of its neighbours.

By the time the first disc closes with Children of the Future with its pleasant backing but entirely incomprehensible vocal, you could be wondering why you had actually bothered with this album in the first place, but fortunately the second disc is generally better. The opening track, Diamonds in the Sidewalk, a collaboration with, of all people, deceased author Jack Kerouac is an interesting novelty, but sadly nothing special, but after that things really kick off properly.

Something’s Got to Give is probably the best track on the album. It’s admittedly not too easy to say why, but the energy which surrounds it is considerably stronger than some of the other tracks we’ve heard up to now. The series which follow it – ChristianeExisteBulletproof Blues, and Suitcase ’88 are all strong too, showcasing a kind of progressive opera nightmare, piano and string driven reggae-pop, and harmonica and saxophone driven electro-blues, among other styles.

The final trio of tracks – Check Your EgoRope, Rapture and the Rising Sun, and Bad Chemistry are less exciting. In general, you can’t help but feel slightly that with a little selective editing (say, dropping roughly half of the album), this could have been a much better release. It’s all too easy to get a bit bored halfway through, and stop giving it your full attention.

It would be the best part of a decade before Apollo 440 would return with their near-return-to-form The Future’s What it Used to Be, and unfortunately Dude Descending a Staircase did little to cover that gap. It’s good – it just isn’t all that good.

You can find Dude Descending a Staircase here. You can also read my earlier review of their most recent album The Future’s What it Used to Be here.