Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Turn Up Your Stereo

One problem is that I'm old enough to remember when "alternative" bands bothered to have good singers. I use the word "alternative" here only to refer to music that has been variously referred to over the years as indie, college rock, underground, etc., etc., etc. Indeed, I'm old enough to have bought U2 records when they were just such an "alternative" band.

Another problem is that I've heard too many good - okay - "indie" bands with crap lead singers. Of course, there are plenty of good bands with crap lead singers that I really like. So what am I saying? Well, there's been a run of nasally, whiny singers that I tend to have a hard time coming around to, although it's certainly not impossible. Nevertheless, I have a tendency to shy away from even a whiff this lately.

Let me get to the point. Admittedly unfamiliar with the band (which is part of the Elephant 6 collective), I had been tuning out all the buzz generated around the release of the new The Apples In Stereo record, New Magnetic Wonder. This avoidance was based on some snippets I'd heard that suggested to me that Robert Schneider's lead vocals might be, well, somewhat on the wimpy side. But try as I might, the buzz eventually became too much for me to ignore, so I decided to dive in. Mea Culpa. I was wrong to avoid this record. Now I don't know how it doesn't wind up near the top of everybody's year-end lists.

In contrast to the recent "growers" I've written about (e.g., Of Montreal, Deerhoof), New Magnetic Wonder is an immediate visceral blast of pop sugar. Song after song hits you right in the sweet spot, with enough production sparkles to stuff a Christmas stocking (or choke Brian Wilson -- I couldn't decide on a metaphor), including Beach Boy harmonies and liberal use of the vocoder. And you know what? The vocals serve the songs well. The whole thing is sort of everything that's good about '60s pop and modern indie rock.

The first song on the record, "Can You Feel It," sets the tone, urging listeners to take the directive that forms the title of this post and to "tune out the bullshit on the FM radio." You don't have to ask me twice. The song "Energy" is pure '60s pop bliss, and it's a crying shame that radio probably won't be playing "Same Old Drag" this summer. "Play Tough" has an incredibly infectious melody and warns "You better play tough, my love, when you play me for a fool" against gorgeous background harmonies and a bouncy pop beat. "Sun Is Out" begins like a homemade demo, but transforms itself into a Beatlesque singalong that has all the potential to make your freakin' day.

The biggest standouts (among the many) for me though are "7 Stars," which really is just about as good as pop gets, "Open Eyes," which bears a slightly trippy riff that I dare you keep out of your head, and "Beautiful Machine Parts 3-4," which is linked below. An added bonus is that the record is chock full of between-song interludes that help make the album even more than the sum of its (great) individual parts. The long and short of it is that this is a great record by a great band, and a cohesive whole on top of that. New Magnetic Wonder lies somewhere near the intersection of The Beatles and Pavement, and that ain't a bad neighborhood to be in. Color me converted.

MP3: The Apples In Stereo - "Beautiful Machine Parts 3-4" from New Magnetic Wonder