The Apples In Stereo New Magnetic Wonder

[Yep Roc/Simian; 2007]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: indie rock/pop, British invasion, psychedelic pop
Others: The Beatles, Beach Boys, The Zombies, ELO, The Minders

Ever since 1997’s Tone Soul Evolution saw The Apples In Stereo perfect their sound of the prior four years, the band has seemingly been trying to take that sound in new and interesting directions. 1999’s Her Wallpaper Reverie saw one of Elephant 6’s flagship bands fleshing out an EP with instrumental interludes; the subsequent year’s The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone included more acoustic and funk elements into the mix; and 2001’s Velocity of Sound featured the band’s loud and streamlined live sound on record.

Now, five years after Discovery, the band is back with a highly anticipated album, New Magnetic Wonder, produced by Apples mastermind Robert Schneider, engineered by Bryce Goggin, and featuring an Elephant 6-heavy guest list (W. Cullen Hart, Jeff Mangum, and Bill Doss, to name three). What has the group been doing in the five years between albums? Two words: side projects. Schneider put out full-lengths with his meaner and more lo-fi group Ulysses (2004’s .010, with members of Hair Police & Von Hemmling), and went solo with the techno-pop of Marbles (Expo, from 2005). Hallmarks of those records (.010’s grit & honesty, Expo’s inclusion of vocoder and electronic elements) have become new elements in the AIS world, employed to varying degrees on this record. For a math problem of sorts: side project influence + AIS’s usual influences + some ’70s style guitar riffs = The Apples in Stereo’s current sound. If you answered ELO as the sum, you wouldn’t be too far off.

NMW works as a ’00s update of British invasion rock and orchestral and baroque pop, just as Jeff Lynne and the boys updated those sounds for the ’70s. Even as Schneider and co. are doing that, they are simultaneously updating what they themselves have done before. The album consists of 14 songs and 10 of what Schneider calls “link tracks,” almost all of which are instrumental interludes. This concept recalls Reverie, and some other tunes also call to mind past albums (“Play Tough” could have been on Evolution, “Skyway” surely would have fit in on .010). While none of the songs (which have umpteen instruments, tracks, and overdubs on them) are a huge departure for the Apples, they revise the songs and, at times, take them into uncharted territory. Take the vocoder for example, which doesn’t overtake the record (save for on link tracks like “Joanie Don’t You Worry” and “Vocoder Ba Ba”), but does stand out when employed. Songs like “Can You Feel It,” “Same Old Drag,” “7 Stars,” and many more include vocoder-assisted backing vocals, which at times evoke ELO or Daft Punk. That notwithstanding, ’70s riffs and other electronic effects play a bigger role then ever before. All of these facets, as well as the production style, gives the album a real shiny polish, a cleaner sound than is found on Apples’ records past.

All of these new ingredients cannot hide the fact that at its core [ha, ha] this consistent and cohesive album contains some of the catchiest ditties yet from the group. “Energy” has hooks galore, while “Play Tough” is melancholic and beautiful. Recently departed drummer Hilarie Sidney can always be relied upon to contribute a couple winners, and her NMW songs are first-rate. Lyrically, Schneider speaks of normal Apples’ topics like love, astronomy, Saturdays, and seasons. There are a few stripped-down, warmer sounding tunes, like “Sun Is Out,” “Radiation,” and Sydney’s “Sunday Sounds.” Even the songs with the most electronics and polish come off as warmer than, say, a Ladytron LP. Almost all of the components found on this album are put to use in a couple songs that seem to be the record’s calling card, “Beautiful Machine Parts 1-2” and “Beautiful Machine Parts 3-4.” These two songs are experienced as one moment, the moment where analog, upbeat, acoustic, whimsical and peppy meet digital, downbeat, electric, orchestral and epic, and where the Apples in Stereo really show you their mettle. These songs include everything interesting about the album and everything amazing about the band. This Wonder was assembled from “Beautiful Machine” parts, and it runs smoothly.

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