In a rock era that seems to have lost sight of the distinction between playfully childlike and willfully childish, this band from Denver is a refreshing change of pace. As the Apples, the guitar-pop group’s self-titled debut EP — six songs pressed on apple-green vinyl — comes stuffed to the gills with amusing stickers and other fun inserts. (The sleeve itself is actually a 12-page booklet, complete with a great color cover.) Most groups attempting to go the bouncy-jumpy-happy route end up failing miserably, but the Apples get away with it, mainly because they never sound like they’re trying too hard — their giddy enthusiasm seems natural, not feigned. The group’s basic sound, perky but resilient, works to perfection on tracks like “Tidal Wave” and “Haley.” This is what an indie 7-inch is supposed to be: fun, exciting, personal and completely unexpected.
Worried about potential lawsuits from other bands with the same name, the group — Robert Schneider (guitar, vocals), Hilarie Sidney (drums), John Hill (guitar) and Eric Allen (bass) — became the Apples in Stereo for their first album, Fun Trick Noisemaker, a nifty little record that shows they didn’t use up all the best tunes on the EP. The bevy of sparkling pop tunes, highlighted by “Lucky Charm” and “Dots 1-2-3,” is an object lesson in how a band can reference bubblegum culture without being kitschy or sounding like a case of arrested emotional development. Serious fun for (and by) adults who were never afraid to grow up in the first place.
Despite the geographical distance from Denver to Athens, GA, Louisiana native Schneider is a co-founder of the Elephant 6 musical collective, and his band is one of its flagships.
Science Faire is a compilation of hard-to-find tracks, including the band’s debut EP. Though a cleaner mix showcases Sidney’s frenetic drumming, some of the charm got lost in the remastering. The second half contains the rare gem Hypnotic Suggestion and several singles.
Tone Soul Evolution improves on Fun Trick Noisemaker. The band sounds comfortable as figureheads of a genre that swirls Beatles / Pet Sounds distinctions into a ’70s Saturday morning cartoon confection. “Shine a Light” is pop purity; “Get There Fine” adds an acid edge to the jangle. If this is sugar, it’s of the most earnest sort.
Her Wallpaper Reverie is a pop music song cycle describing the daydreams of a girl sitting in a room listening to, erm, pop music. Beginning with the liner quote “Ruby escapes the rain beneath her grammophone…,” each track segues with treated toy piano as the day progresses. “Strawberryfire” is a “Strawberry Fields” homage replete with backward drums and reverb vocals: “Her mind is a plane or window pane / It’s all the same / Coming up on a song / She dreams along then she is gone.” (The song was later used in a Sony television commercial and bundled on many computers). Sidney’s “Questions and Answers” is her best yet. The lover from “Ruby” arrives in “Benefits of Lying (With Your Friend)” and admits “I’ll never know you like you know yourself.” The day winds down. A snappy response to Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” touchstone. Innocent in scope yet abundant.
Continuing down the paisley path, The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone ranges from psychedelic to fragile to brisk, matching the sound with more afternoon-daydream lyrics. The crisp production serves the continued Beach Boys fetish (Schneider named his Denver studio “Pet Sounds”) and warmly adds brass, flute and cello. New arrival Chris McDuffie provides synth and mellotron. The songwriting appreciates pop’s past as well as the stylistic house the Apples inhabit (the cover art depicts an imaginary Apples clubhouse). The first half is good but homogenous, with “Look Away” being the winner despite a shrill mix. The stronger second half contains the anthems “I Can’t Believe,” “Alright/Not Quite” and the smirky-bouncy “The Bird That You Can’t See.” The vinyl version includes an interview flexi (in which Schneider reveals himself as the Quentin Tarantino of indie) with a solo acoustic B-side otherwise available only on the Japanese import. “The Rainbow” was later used in a Hewlett-Packard television commercial. The Look Away EP is a preview of the album track with four outtakes from Her Wallpaper Reverie.
Live in Chicago is an MP3-only release. The manic energy of the band’s live show is captured with raw audience sound. A good performance, but for fans only. Let’s Go! contains “Signal in the Sky”, a theme song from the Powerpuff Girls cartoon (a good fit for the band), a few rarities and a live cover of the Beach Boys’ “Heroes and Villains.” Sound Effects is a mid-career retrospective with a few alternate mixes.
Velocity of Sound is a smooth achievement. The Apples, now minus Chris McDuffie, prove that paisley pop hasn’t buried their fuzzy roots on an album of hooky distortion. In particular, “Please” and “Do You Understand?” are great additions to the repertoire. Three slightly different mixes exist for the European, American and Japanese releases (with different colors for each cover).
Schneider and Sidney then relocated to Lexington, Kentucky and began working on projects outside of the Apples. Hill joined Dressy Bessy. High Water Marks is a pop outfit consisting of Sidney, Per Ole Bratset (Palermo) on guitar, Mike Snowden (Von Hemmling) on bass and Jim Lindsay (Preston School of Industry) on drums. Secret Square is solo Sidney.
Schneider’s ulysses project, with John Ferguson (Von Hemmling), gives a slight shoegaze to ’60s pop. Released as a mono recording (in stereo!), 010 is notable for the catchy “The Falcon.” The first Marbles release (another Schneider project) collects tracks recorded in the early ’90s with Will Cullen Hart (Olivia Tremor Control); Expo is essentially a solo pop outing and Brain Wilson homage.
Apples in Stereo, assisted by a cast of Elephant 6 regulars, returned after a five-year gap with New Magnetic Wonder, an accumulation of all things power-pop. Schneider’s singing is much bolder than previously (“Can You Feel It?”, the heavy riff-rock “Skyway”). Although “Energy” is an apogee of the band’s Lennon/McCartney worship, the Beatles take a side seat to Jeff Lynne on “7 Stars,” “Same Old Drag” and “Play Tough,” which sounds like Badly Drawn Boy and the Beatles-worshipping ELO studiously deconstructed. Though heavily double-tracked, the departing (divorced, musically and personally, from Schneider) Sidney’s “Sunndal Song” remains kittenish. A little paranoia is a good thing for “Beautiful Machine Parts 1-2” (“You better leave the light on in your room”). The party peaks with the superbly produced “Open Eyes.” The disc also includes a SoundFont, loadable on MIDI devices, that renders a new, “Non-Pythagorean” scale. This reassigns the frequencies of the 12-note scale based on a mathematical logarithm rather than fifths. Schneider speculates, “You have never heard these tones in these combinations before. Maybe nobody has.” The scale is also used in segue tracks on the album. Early copies included a five-track bonus disc.