The Apples in Stereo always fill their 1960s-influenced pop-rock songs with extra verve and power when they play live. While all of their songs are catchy as can be, matching bubblegum melodies with more serious sentiments and a hearty interest in the art of arranging and recording, in concert they are a creature unleashed, a giddy yet forceful rock 'n' roll animal. This especially struck me the last time I saw them perform, in Kansas City, on the not insignificant date of September 10, 2001. After getting a late start due to two band members getting lost on the way to the venue, the Apples took the crowd -- which by this late hour was both hungry for music and quite buzzed -- on an exhilarating ride.
Velocity of Sound captures that feeling exactly. It's not a live album, yet it mimics the spirit and sound of the Apples' live show. Play it loud three or four times in a row, while jumping around your home, and you'll likely wake up the next morning with ringing ears, tired legs and a huge smile, feeling like you spent the previous night at a rock show.
"Please", Velocity of Sound's first track, takes off like the jet plane or rocketship of our collective imagination, in the air and gone before you even noticed it. But "Please" also has density of sound, the type of sonic hugeness that Guided By Voices has been pursuing in recent years. To some extent, the title Velocity of Sound is a dead giveaway as to what the Apples are up to these days. This is the quickest Apples in Stereo album yet, both in terms of speed and length; it clocks in at just over 28 minutes. Yet the sound is the key to the energetic aura of the album. This isn't just an Apples in Stereo album on high speed, it's an album crafted to project the fast and fun feeling of a live show.
Where the group's last few releases have had an increasingly crisp and stylized atmosphere, what's instantly noticeable about Velocity of Sound is the fuzziness. There's a deliberately noisy sound, one that comes not from carelessness but from careful attention to capturing a certain feeling. On a logical level it seems ridiculous to have to work for a fuzzy, noisy sound, but anyone who's a rock and roll fan understands. Part of the joy of seeing a band play live is that noisy, slightly clouded sound that elevates the songs instead of muffling them. That's what's going on here; the Apples have captured the feeling of raw transcendence that the studio often takes away.
The songs on Velocity of Sound are quintessential Apples, more in line with their straightforward first two albums than their more recent attempts to diversify their sound. These songs are like the band's most upbeat, catchiest songs amplified and sharpened; this is the Apples rocked up to the extreme. Songs like "Do You Understand?", "Rainfall" (one of two songs sung by drummer Hilarie Sidney instead of lead singer/chief songwriter Robert Schneider) and the Beach Boys-influenced "She's Telling Lies" (a bonus track in North America) rock out as strongly as the group ever has. There's also songs dipping into the group's psychedelic, head-in-the-clouds side ("Where We Meet") but even those don't lose any of the group's newfound force.
It's rare for a band to make their sound more rocking without dumbing the songs down, but that's what the Apples in Stereo do here. These songs convey the same feelings as any of the band's songs. There's songs about wanting to dream the days away, songs about the messed-up ways people behave toward each other, love songs and songs about looking at the world around you and realizing how wonderful it can be. The last two are combined in the album's two closing numbers (not counting the bonus song): "Mystery" and "Baroque." Both are beautiful pop songs about seeing the ways the world can be gorgeous and wishing it could keep moving in that direction. "Mystery" directs that message towards one person ("I wanna be there with you/following the day"), while "Baroque" takes your most starry-eyed memories of the past and uses them as a guideline to how great the future could be. The song ends with a "ba-ba-ba" melodic singalong, echoing the song's sentiments by alluding to the history of pop music while using it to make listeners sing merrily in the present. That is in essence what the Apples in Stereo are about: drawing on the music of the past but using it to create their own lively, shining music now. On Velocity of Sound they do that with more spark and spunk than ever, using their songwriting, performing and studio skills to send a glow out from the speakers.