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An American Portrait
Artist: The Apprentice 
Label: Future Destination Records
Time: 11 tracks/38:24

I thought I’d had enough of acoustic college bands. After a strong dose of groups like Harrod and Funck and Lifehouse, it gets old after a while. So imagine my surprise to find that I’ve got The Apprentice stuck in my CD player 24/7. Fronted by crooner Eric DeLong, The Apprentice is another acoustic college band--but this is one college band worth listening to.

Their sophomore release, An American Portrait is an album in story form, exploring the broken hopes and heartaches of a family, each song delivered from the perspective of one of the family members (and two by a narrator). Listened to from start to finish, it tells the tale of a family cruising for years toward self destruction and inadvertently finding hope at rock bottom. A dark album, it’s also very likable and easy to listen to. DeLong delivers heartbreaking, brooding, and despairing lyrics and melodies while also peppering the album with light, making the CD a pleasure to just sit and listen to over and over again.

Easily the best song of the disk, “We Were Just Eighteen” introduces the family’s story with a heartbreaking, lilting melody about regret and consequences (“Here we are now watching the sun going down/Wishing we’d done things differently/But we can’t turn back time”).

“You Still Say,” a stand-out lovesong from a daughter to her father, and “Smiling Faces,” with brooding vocals backed by ambient melodies and atmospheric guitars, tell the daughter’s and son’s stories and explore the alienation they feel while living in the same house as their emotionally distant father.

With “A Husband’s Lament” (“I love you, I love you/No I don’t/I light a match and watch it burn/It could burn this whole house down”) and “Your Note” (“As I read your note I slipped six feet below/The blood drained from my body at the thought of being alone”), the album reaches its darkest tones, depicting a couple who has no hope for their marriage or love for each other. In “A Husband’s Lament”, DeLong’s low, spare vocals are backed by nothing but a piano, and the listener can easily imagine the husband sitting at his family’s upright alone in the home he’s about to leave.

 “Cocaine and Whiskey,” ironically enough, is the turning point of the album, bringing hope to the family’s story. And though the lyrics contain images of despair and suicide, it’s a truly happy song with a toe-tapping beat and Johnny Cash influences. 

“I’m Comin Home” and “The Great Invitation” follow in its wake, completing the family’s story with a message of repentance and reconciliation, as well as hope for all who despair.

While they certainly don’t spoil the project, “Fatherless Nation” and “In the Air,” the two songs told by the narrator, are the weakest of the album, delivering a somewhat preachy social commentary. (From “Fatherless Nation”: “There’s a march going through America/That’s being led by popular culture/Little girls say I want to be just like my favorite pop star/Yeah I want to learn to be a slut.”) But “In the Air” is musically a creative song that’s able to compensate for any lyrical stumbling.

When I first saw that this was a story about family life, I wondered if it could appeal to non-parents and the college crowd in particular; but the depictions of alienation, betrayal, and desperation in this album are universal and handled skillfully so that anyone can identify with this offering. Occasionally a bit didactic but musically terrific and consistently delivering strong vocals, An American Portrait  is hardly a “fun” album, but deeply enjoyable. The Apprentice scores high with this one.

Ben Cauldwerse  7/12/2005



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