Theoretically, France’s Sweet Apple Pie is a sunny power pop band, a European Sloan of sorts. Certainly, on their second album, Between the Lines, there is a sense that the band could have easily joined the late, semi-lamented Elephant 6 collective, as the album reeks of the Magical Mystery Tour-era Beatles sound that bands like Elf Power and Of Montreal ruthlessly mined during the late ’90s. Theoretically, Between the Lines should be chock-full of obvious (yet mindlessly catchy) hooks and crunchy (but not too distorted) guitars. It should be a rollicking good time that’s both instantly memorable and instantly forgettable: a surfeit of three-minute pop songs just quirky enough that the listener will easily forgive their enormous debts to ’60s psychedelic pop and ’70s power pop.
But what kind of power pop band opens with their breathy lead vocalist singing “I’m supposed to feel alive”? Bands like Sweet Apple Pie should always feel alive. Their purpose, in fact, is to help spur the listener to feel more alive, more in the moment. The opener “Alive” is, yes, very pretty, and definitely short and poppy, but it contains a shadow of despair that acts as a warning that Sweet Apple Pie, for good or ill, aims to be a little more complex than most other power pop acts.
It’s not as if Sweet Apple Pie can’t be carefree and catchy. Short songs like “She Whistles in the Tube” and “You Shouldn’t Try to Understand” are monstrously cheerful, perfect pop songs that wear their hooks on their sleeves. On these tracks, the acoustic guitars jangle like they should and the electric guitars have that ear-pleasing early R.E.M. crunch to them. Meanwhile, the two lead singers (presumably songwriters/siblings Laurent & Gilles Davancens, although individual credits are impossible to find either in the liner notes or on the vast reaches of the internet) take turns in the spotlight, making good use of the always-reliable boy-girl vocal dichotomy. These songs prove that if Sweet Apple Pie doesn’t sound as upbeat as some of its peers, it’s not because the band members don’t know how.
Instead, Sweet Apple Pie has learned that just because you know how to inject hooks and explosive climaxes into direct pop songs doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. Sweet Apple Pie borrows a trick from the shoegazer movement and hides obvious hooks deep within the songs, so that a listener has to discover them during repeated listenings. Unlike the shoegazers, Sweet Apple Pie doesn’t use distortion, it just sneaks these moments of pop clarity in between instrumental jams and basically disposable verses.
These verses are disposable because Sweet Apple Pie does not rely on easy vocal hooks to catch an audience’s attention. While most indie rock/power pop bands live or die by the number of lines that lodge into people’s brains, Sweet Apple Pie has the courage to let the instrumental passages drive the songs. While I cannot remember a single line in the epic title track, the guitar riffs continually bubble in and out of my consciousness. I couldn’t tell you what “Pray Before” is about, or even hum it in my head, but I can still feel the pure rush that happens when the rhythm section, as it often does, turns the song into an astounding indie-funk breakdown. The six minute “Surprise” begins with the lead singer’s hauntingly bleak admission that he feels “low as placebo”, but the real surprise in the song is the minor key electric piano solo that immediately follows the opening verses. On these longer tracks, Sweet Apple Pie sounds like what an indie-rock jam band would sound like, and the results are surprisingly promising.
Between the Lines is not a great album — moments of blandness make parts of the album slow going — but it does stand apart from the continuing glut of sticky sweet indie pop. While most artists in this genre decide that the easiest way to create a big splash is with short albums filled with short, but painfully catchy, pop songs, they often create the musical equivalent of a sugar rush. Sweet Apple Pie, like the pastry they’re named after, proves that a more hearty desert can be more filling than mere candy.