Thursday, March 8, 2012
The Apples in Stereo: New Magnetic Wonder (2007)
Robert Schneider talks himself up a lot; has anyone so passionately devoted to pure pop ever made such a huge Thing out of it? This record, packaged with the kind of obsessive fanfare typically afforded some forty-years-down-the-line deluxe edition of a Classic Rawk benchmark, was accompanied by a lot of talk about Schneider's creation of his own new kind of composition style -- the "Non-Pythagorean" concept pieces that have peppered the two subsequent Apples records. The linking material on this behemoth 24-track release consists of thirty-second jumbles of half-formed pop ideas in the vein of the Beach Boys' Smile. Mostly though, this is much ado about nothing. The Apples' new direction drifts away from the Beatlesque studio tomfoolery of their '90s work and, mercifully, farther away yet from the horrendous lost-youth scrap-rock of Velocity of Sound -- and toward some Frankenstein creation halfway between ELO and They Might Be Giants.
But mostly ELO; lots of shoehorned vocoder (which would be better integrated on the follow-up, Travellers in Space and Time) and a general air of kitsch-pop silliness that is for nearly the entire duration slightly annoying at the same time that it's infectious, sort of a '70s pop trademark in general (see Wings, likely another frame of reference). The included throwbacks to the Apples' past, like the songs Hilarie Sydney submits (the tepid "Sunndal Song" in particular) and the bloated at 2:29 "Sun Is Out," seem curiously misguided, as if at this point Schneider's entire life hinges on his being steeped in the quaint futurism of another generation. he can't quite figure out a way to make this potpourri work yet, attempting self-consciously to reach for the barbed avant garde invention of other major Elephant 6 projects but failing to integrate that weirdness with his audacious commercial-radio sensibilities, failing as well to craft his own pop version of such weirdness like Of Montreal. There's something to this mishmash, though, and something that Travellers would happily bring into focus.
At the right points, New Magnetic Wonder soars -- the wondrous (if slightly overlong) "Energy" and its amusing companion "Same Old Drag," as well as the charming sprawl of "Open Eyes" and the two "Beautiful Machine" tracks all define just how and why the Apples have always had a sly, unexpected depth that gave them a personable quality Of Montreal and even Olivia Tremor Control couldn't quite hope to share, even if at varying levels both bands have enjoyed a kind of success Schneider's mainline group can't hope for. You always get the feeling that they're "for the people" more than any other E6 band, most of all the passionately insular Neutral Milk Hotel and the brassy, blissful Beulah, but that the "people" in question are a rather select group -- the ones like Schneider who still spend time with headphones on, marveling constantly at the power and utility of the chosen AM hits of yore. New Magnetic Wonder finds him falling further than ever into that abyss; it's little wonder that Sidney announced her departure from the band in the wake of the record's creation. In this kind of exuberance, there's no room for the past -- maybe this album contains the last elements of it Schneider needed to shed in order to dive full-force into his most twisted, thrilling ideas. The later album would seem to indicate such, but this makes for a lovely stepping stone all the same.