As a musician who, on the new Apples In Stereo CD New Magnetic Wonder, introduces a new musical scale that he's invented, it's not surprising to hear Robert Schneider has lofty goals for the band's records.
In press materials for the new album, Schneider says he wanted to make a CD that felt "life affirming and real, yet ultra hi-fi and unreal at the same time." He laments that such a record might not be technically feasible.
Schneider's bandmate, bassist Eric Allen, isn't quite so critical.
"I would disagree (with Schneider) and say this album to me is all those things," Allen says. "But I know how it is. Robert's got stuff in his head that he'd like to hear on tape, and has not yet."
Chances are fans of creative, finely crafted Power Pop will side with Allen once they hear New Magnetic Wonder, which could very well be this year's best Pop album. That the Apples In Stereo returned to action with such a stellar effort won't come as a surprise to fans of the group's previous work.
The band, whose beginnings date back to 1992 in Denver, emerged on the national scene three years later -- after several personnel changes that saw the arrival of Allen, guitarist John Hill and drummer Hilarie Sidney -- with the CD Fun Trick Noisemaker. Led the by songwriting of Schneider (with Sidney pitching in a few tunes as well), the band quickly gained a reputation for superior Pop songcraft, a fact affirmed by subsequent albums like Tone Soul Evolution (1997), Her Wallpaper Reverie (1999) and The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone (2000).
The band's 2002 release Velocity Of Sound represented a significant stylistic turn for the Apples.
The CD retained the catchiness of the earlier efforts, but where previous discs were textured, studio-crafted works with keyboards frequently laced within a sunny Guitar Pop sound, Velocity Of Sound rocked hard. The band's sound was stripped back to guitar/bass/drums and the tempos were kicked up to create a collection of tunes that barreled along one after another.
"It was more kind of for the first time reconciling who we are on record with who we are live," Allen says of Velocity. "I think that's what we kind of needed to do. Let's make an album that actually captures the way we sound live, that's faster and rawer and doesn't have that much on it."
Having made that artistic statement, Allen says, the band naturally gravitated back toward making a much more studio-crafted and musically-varied CD with New Magnetic Wonder. But as the five-year gap between albums suggests, the path to completing New Magnetic Wonder was long and not always smooth. Several factors contributed to the long delay. For one thing, several band members took time to work on other projects. Hill toured and recorded with Power Pop band Dressy Bessy. Schneider also worked with a couple of side projects, Ulysses and Marbles.
Another issue was far more personal -- the divorce of Schneider and Sidney. Although Sidney remained with the band for the entire New Magnetic Wonder project, she recently left to devote her full energies to her other band, High Water Marks.
"I think they did really well with it for awhile, and certainly a lot better than I would have done under the circumstances," Allen says. "But, yeah, I think they're both in a really good place now and happy with their lives, and it's just kind of natural for Hilarie to separate from the band."
Then there was the recording of Wonder itself, which stretched over 18 months and involved work in five studios in five different cities. While Schneider and his bandmates have never shied away from taking advantage of studio technologies on the Apples albums, New Magnetic Wonder was the band's most ambitious project yet. What eventually emerged was a meticulously crafted set of 14 songs linked by a dozen brief musical segues that feature plenty of densely layered instrumentation and sonic ear candy.
While the logistics of the project created challenges, Allen says Wonder became a better CD because of the time that went into the project.
"We really got to spend a lot of time listening to rough mixes and kind of stuff that was unfinished, and it just sort of germinated," he says. "I think if we had the money to crank the album out in two months, I don't think it would be nearly as rich as it is now."
Listening to Wonder (which is being co-released by Yep Roc Records and the new label owned by actor Elijah Wood, Simian Records) the time and effort that went into the project was clearly worthwhile. A multi-faceted and typically upbeat collection, songs such as "Can You Feel It?" and "7 Stars" recall the peppy Pop of Inside the Moon, while the group's more raucous, guitar-centric sound emerges on tunes like "Skyway" and "Sundial Song." Between those extremes fall songs like "Same Old Drag" (a keyboard-based tune that might inspire comparisons to Ben Folds), the gorgeous melancholy of the ballad "Play Tough" and the dreamy psychedelia of "Open Eyes." It all makes for a consistently satisfying kaleidoscope of Pop in the tradition of Brian Wilson's Smile and The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's.
The sonic detail in the music, of course, will take some doing to re-create in a live setting. To meet that challenge, Apples In Stereo has expanded from the previous four-person lineup to six band members, with keyboardists Bill Doss (formerly of Olivia Tremor Control) and John Ferguson (of Ulysses) joining Schneider, Hill, Allen and new drummer John Dufilho (formerly of the Deathray Davies). The new lineup has obviously created a very different dynamic on stage.
"For me, it feels kind of like a new band," Allen says. "There's me, Robert and John Hill, and then there are three other guys who are totally new, who I get along with great, but I'm still learning about them. When you've hung out with someone (Sidney) for 10 or 11 years, you know, it's like a comfortable pair of shoes, or sometimes an uncomfortable pair of shoes. But you know everything about them, about their families. You've spent so much time traveling together. So in a way, it makes me kind of feel like I'm in a new band, which I like the feeling, actually, because it will kind of break you out of some of your comfort areas and make you think about things differently than you have in awhile."
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