Here’s the thing with out-and-out pop music. It can seem superficial, temporary, a guilty pleasure. When I was kid, I loved “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy (I Got Love in my Tummy)” by the Ohio Express and “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night. But I can’t say those tunes stand up to any kind of scrutiny today. Soon enough my friends and I were beyond that stuff, listening to Led Zeppelin, through with music that was actually, you know… tuneful and fun. Not all pop is shallow. But for a really long stretch there, it seemed like smart pop, pop unstuck from bubblegum, was all too rare.
In the early 1990s, there was a glorious re-explosion of tuneful pop music, but it was pop music that came with an awareness that a healthy slice of edge can immunize a catchy song from seeming vapid. In simple terms, this meant that bands who loved the Beach Boys and the Beatles also loved the Velvet Underground and the Ramones. With a little bite added to the mix, these bands, largely working independently, were able to recapture the strength of great ‘60s pop.
The Apples in Stereo were, and are, one of these bands. They emerged 18 years ago as part of the “Elephant 6 Recording Company”, along with Neutral Milk Hotel, the Olivia Tremor Control, and a few other bands constructed from a small group of pop-crazed friends. “Tidal Wave” by the Apples was the collective’s first release: a garage-rock single featuring a fuzzed-out but killer guitar lick, clattering drums, random squeals and electric tones, and, crucially, a beyond-catchy vocal. Eight albums later, the Apples in Stereo (the latter two words were added later) are the last Elephant 6 band still actively and regularly making great music. They’re not famous or rich, but the music is the kind of sheer joy that should appeal to everyone.
#1 Hits Explosion is a compilation of the best, catchiest, and most irresistible stuff from the Apples in Stereo. Of course, the title is a self-conscious reference to the kind of albums that used to come out in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the kinds of platters that might have included “Yummy” or “Joy to the World”. The Apples—Robert Schneider on guitar and vocals for all of the band’s history, as well as Hillarie Sidney, John Hill, Eric Allen, Bill Doss, and others—are clearly comfortable with this sort of knowing nod to the past. “Ruby” (from 1999’s Her Wallpaper Reverie) and “Signal in the Sky” (from, actually, the Powerpuff Girls soundtrack disc in 2000) are rife with “La-la-la” and “Ba-ba-ba-ba” chorus moments. “Strawberryfire” is straight-up psychedelia that is so Lennon-esque all it’s missing is Yoko Ono.
This throwback attitude works well for Schneider and the Apples because the whole enterprise is perfectly leavened with punk punch. Punk, after all, was not so much a reaction against three-minute pop as it was against bloated prog-rock or the pretenses of what we now call “Classic Rock”—“Stairway to Heaven” bloviating. The Apples in Stereo and their contemporaries were drunk on Brian Wilson harmonies, no doubt, but their deeper allegiance was to “the song”, to the joy of the sure-fire hook.
“Can You Feel It” (from 2007’s New Magnetic Wonder) comes at your ears like a convertible hurtling down the highway in mid-July. It kicks off with a fat guitar riff and the cry “Oh-ho Oh-oh, Oh-ho Oh-oh! Turn up your stereo!”—accompanied by some insistent cowbell. This song is so punchy that, for all intents and purposes, it has no verse and instead two different choruses. But a song from the first album (1995’s Fun Trick Noisemaker), “Winter Is Cold” (written and sung by Sidney) is just as pop-pure, with a killer guitar lick and a bed of harmonies surrounding the female lead.
Fuzz-toned guitars keep the treacle at bay on many tunes, such as “Go” (off The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone from 2000). But “Go” also contains equal parts horn section and organ groove. Combining a prominent piccolo part with raunchy guitar then slipping in a percussion breakdown is classic Apples. But so is “Same Old Drag” (2007), which is driven by acoustic piano and Wurlitzer electric piano textures bumping beneath a truly soulful vocal. “The Rainbow” (2000) contains just a hint of country music, but you’re more likely to attribute its pop-perfect instinct to Fountains of Wayne. So, there is a diversity in The Apples pop consistency.
Is it unfair or fitting that the Apples in Stereo never really had their “Stacey’s Mom” moment? Perhaps it hardly matters. In recent years, their mere longevity has started to mean something. They’ve lasted twice as long as their Fab inspiration, and their good music outweighs that of their heroes the Beach Boys, even if they’ve never written a “God Only Knows”. They’ve recently appeared twice on The Colbert Report, and while they own no Grammys, they did win an “Independent Music Award” last year for “Same Old Drag”. Something about the Apples in Stereo is built to last.
#1 Hits Explosion makes the argument that this music gives great surface, certainly, but also that it carries some weight. The lyrics to a good number of songs tell stories and go well beyond a sugary surface. But the real depth here is purely tonal. Schneider and his band are fantastic producers, layering sounds both obvious (guitars, pianos, drums, and singing) and unlikely (horn sections, oddball percussion, buzzing synths, crowd sounds, and hard-to-identify rumbles, cracks, warbles, and shrieks). Though much of the early music was recorded only to eight tracks, the Apples never fail to make the music sound pocket-symphonic. This is not the pseudo-sophistication of an orchestra in pop music but, rather, the pop tools themselves used orchestrally. The Apples in Stereo have made 15 years of these little pop miracles.
With a “greatest hits” collection now out, the obvious concern is that this band is over. But Schneider recently announced that the band was in the studio recording something new. Here’s hoping it is, like all the band’s work, both fresh and not entirely new.