After a five-year hiatus the Apples in Stereo are back with their very own Smile -- New Magnetic Wonder combines the dazzling, sunbleached pop of yore with a phenomenal wall-of-sound production that does not beg to be heard -- it demands it.
Robert Schneider, frontman of the gloriously upbeat Apples in Stereo, could hardly have chosen a better moment to dust off the group's instruments after a five-year hiatus and produce another burst of sunny, '60s psych-pop. What with the melodic, soft harmonies of the critically lauded retro outfit the Magic Numbers in the ascendent, Apples contemporaries from the '90s the New Pornographers producing the inventively contagious piece of powerpop that is 2005's Twin Cinema, and old friends Neutral Milk Hotel (founding member Jeff Magnum turns up here playing a cowbell) from the now defunct indie-pop collective Elephant Six receiving high praise from such groups of the moment as Franz Ferninand and the Arcade Fire with the UK re-release of fuzz-folk classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (which Schneider produced), the portents look good for a favorable reception from fans and newcomers to the band.
This is not to say that Schneider has been resting on his laurels; far from it, with the singer/songwriter/producer juggling two projects pretty much simultaneously. In 2004, he formed Ulysses, releasing the rough-hewed indie-rock album 010, which dispensed with his usual penchant for intricate production techniques and was subsequently recorded directly into a single mic in his garage. Meanwhile, his long-running solo project Marbles was resurrected last year, and took a similiar lo-fi route with an '80s-styled synth-pop LP Expo, which was developed solely on his laptop.
What then of New Magnetic Wonder, the slow-to-materialise follow-up to Velocity of Sound, that short, sharp shot of fuzz-pop adrenaline? Well, for one thing it's almost twice as long, clocking in at 53 minutes, and contains more than double the tracks, with a sprawling 24 ambitiously produced numbers made up of 14 songs with an additional 10 short "link tracks" full of musical whimsy. And if that's not enough, Schneider has gone one better than the Moody Blues -- who in 1968 only went on a mellotron-inspired (an instrument used here to great effect on the upbeat, Beatlesesque "Energy" and the wonderful smoky-blues "link" "Mellotron Two") psychedelic odyssey In Search of the Lost Chord -- by inventing the new "Non-Pythagorean Scale", incorporated as a couple of link tracks with a sustained "Non-Pythagorean Chord" opening the album, which will be explained in-depth to the listener (sadly, this reviewer must for now remain in the dark) on a video-enhanced portion of the multimedia CD.
Schneider has remarked that "finishing this record took every joule of energy I had. There were so many different sounds and ideas bouncing around in my head, and such strong feeling to get across." On hearing this statement and taking into account the experimental nature of the record, it's impossible not to be reminded of the anguish suffered by one of Schneider's major musical influences, Brian Wilson, on the making of Smile. As was the case for Wilson with that belated pop masterpiece, this album heralds a return to form for the Apples in Stereo, and its densely layered sound utilizes so many tracks of instrumentation that it would have made the young Wilson weep with envy. In fact, on the infectious tune "Same Old Drag", with its sunbleached sound seemingly channeled through the futuristic, orchestral pop of '70s giants the Electric Light Orchestra, a monumental 96 tracks were layed down, causing sound engineer Bryce Goggin's (Pavement) Pro-tools recording system to nearly stop functioning more than once.
Nevertheless, the raucous opener, "Can You Feel It", seems to owe as much to the early sound of XTC as it does to ELO, with its rough-edged guitar hooks and Schneider's pleading "Turn up your stereo" chorus echoing the former's "Radios in Motion". This is all accompanied by forceful Beach Boys-style "ba, ba, ba" harmony backing. With the next number, "Skyway", the Apples continue to ride the wave of '60s-inflected punk-pop with a Velvet Underground-inspired chugging guitar bruiser that cruises along until it drives right into a percussive wall of sound. This is something the group stay with on "Open Eyes", a song that begins with looped, backwards spoken-word poetry, before a hypnotic fuzz-guitar and vocal groove kicks in only to be overwhelmed by beautiful, soaring strings.
Highlights on an Apples record are never hard to find, but you can bet that at least a couple of them will be due to co-vocalist and drummer Hilary Sydney. And she doesn't fail to please here with both of her contributions, "Sunndal Song" and "Sunday Sounds", using her ethereal voice to provide a warm, folk-pop glow to the proceedings. Sadly for the Apples, these two numbers are her swan song, but happily for us she left to concentrate on her own excellent lo-fi indie band, High Water Marks. Nevertheless, the pinnacle of the Apples' success comes near the close of New Magnetic Wonder with the almost eight-minute orchestral head trip "Beautiful Machine", which blends four distinct pieces of music into two tracks, and only goes to show that it's not all sunshine pop in Schneider's universe though a tale of paranoia as "a beautiful disease". Schneider has been quoted as saying, "This time I wanted to make a record that really meant something, that felt life affirming and real, yet ultra hi-fi and unreal at the same time. Apparently that kind of record is not technically feasible." Seems like he went and proved himself wrong on that one.