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The Apples in Stereo - New Magnetic Wonder

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Artist: The Apples in Stereo

Album: New Magnetic Wonder

Label: Yep Roc

Review date: May. 9, 2007

The Apples in Stereo have always faced a balancing act, with overt tweeness on the one hand, and intriguing Smile worship on the other. No doubt many would say that they fell on the wrong side more often than not, but their albums have always contained enough memorable, sunny-day melodies to offset their occasional cutesy crimes. On New Magnetic Wonder, bandleader Robert Schneider leads the foursome into an intersection of summery pop, alt-rock, vaguely psych-ified ELO-inspired effects, and odd sound collages.

With drummer/vocalist Hilarie Sidney, bassist Eric Allen, and guitarist John Hill, Schneider has constructed an album of twenty-four tracks, of which half would be considered "songs"; the other tracks are collages, brief song-embryos, and short instrumental passages, interspersed between the actual songs. It's somewhat similar to the way fellow Elephant 6-ers Olivia Tremor Control scattered bits of sounds and noises between songs, but here there's no real connection between the pieces and the effect can sometimes feel too artificial.

The key to pop music, of course, is what some call an "earworm" – something, some bit of (usually) melody or rhythm or sound, that worms its way into you and doesn't let go. A song's "hook" is an element, usually the height of the chorus, which makes an attempt to be an earworm, but one of the charming mysteries of songwriting is that it's so difficult to predict. A vocal lilt, a guitar riff, even a silly sample, can end up being the part of a song that you find yourself humming – even if you hate the song in question.

On this album, Schneider seems a bit torn between his task as a hook-writing pop musician and a seeming urge to rock a bit harder, with the added burden of being unable to put his toys down when he should. "Energy" is in one sense the best pop song here. It's rather predictable, yet it still sinks its claws in and doesn't let go. "Same Old Drag," with a very ’70s-derived electric piano, is a better boppy tune, with some clear ELO influences on the chorus that work very well.

On the other hand, "Can You Feel It?" is perhaps not the best choice of album opener. While it's sunny and bright, the vocals feel strained and out of sync, and the song never quite gels. "Play Tough" is a slow, dreamy, classic Apples song but it comes and goes without leaving a strong impression.

At times, the band veers into a dense, alt-rock mode, as on "7 Stars" and "Open Eyes." The former adds layers of sheen, synths and guitar fuzz to an otherwise straightforward tune, with good results. The latter throws out a large wall of guitars and orchestration, and both oddly evoke Smashing Pumpkins, for better or worse (depending on your inclinations there).

"Beautiful Machine" apparently consists of four parts, but is presented as two tracks on the album. Parts 1 & 2 are classic sunny, jangly Apples, digging up their Nuggets-esque poppiness, before descending into a slow, thick soup of sound that flows into parts 3 & 4, which builds into some dense fuzzed-out guitar chords and a nicely charged blend of synth, guitar and symphonic arrangements. It's actually a shame the rest of the album isn't like this, because the results are quite gorgeous.

Sadly, following that with the 42-second, lightweight "My Pretend" and the bloopy "Non-Pythagorean Composition 3" sucks the wind out of the album's sails. Instead of ending on a strong, epic note, the album dwindles into a pair of afterthoughts. But it's easy enough to hit "stop" at the appropriate time, and if you do so, you'll be left with some pleasant memories and, perhaps, some snippets you'll find yourself humming hours later.

By Mason Jones

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