2010 / Music

Review: Apples In Stereo’s ‘Travellers’ Venture Into ’70s Dance Pop

Psychedelic-Pop Group Returns With Seventh Album

Listen to each of their surrealistic albums and the members of the long-running, psychedelic pop group the Apples in Stereo come across as hopelessly naïve. After all, the Apples’ oversaturated, syrupy simple melodies testify that this troupe of ’60s-inspired artistes still believe an obscure rock band hiding out in flyover country can make the perfect pop record.

Photo: Simian Records/Elephant 6 Records/Yep Roc Records

Photo: Simian Records/Elephant 6 Records/Yep Roc Records

Oddly enough, with each new release, the band comes mind-bogglingly closer to fulfilling this impossible mission. Talk about a dream come true.

To that end, the group’s seventh and latest record, “Travellers In Space And Time,” is their most forthright attempt to embrace the kind of commercial sound that the band has typically torpedoed with their music’s neo-retro affectations, screwy structures and a painfully obstructive artistic streak. If the Apples’ stylistic milieu has been zeroed in on mind expansion, this record of futuristic R&B, disco grooves and ’70s progressive-y power-pop goes the furthest in asking the audience wrap their heads around a trip in an opposite direction from kid-in-a-candy-store art experiments that dominated their sound until now.

This wouldn’t be the first time the Apples and its unlikely leader, Robert Schneider, shoved aside expectations with awe-inspiring results. The band, which formed in the early ’90s, is the lone standard bearer these days of the once-vibrant Elephant 6 Collective, an Athens, Ga.,-based, psychedelia-obsessed music scene. The collective spawned such indie-rock pet projects as Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control and most recently, Of Montreal and established that the acid-tinged sonic ethos of the late ’60s and ’70s need not be a dated relic. The collective’s collected works signaled a new generation of auteurs and wunderkinds could pick up their heroes’ tools and began to carve out their own beautifully abstract works on their own terms.

Despite each of the Elephant 6 groups’ fiercely nonconformist output and the fact every act subsisted on an independent label’s shoe-string budget, the scene for a time became a beacon on the hill of artistic bravery and musical idealism. It was art for art’s sake, and Schneider and the Apples, as the linchpin of the entire scene, were nominated as indie-rock ambassadors to the new world. This was the case even though the group was overshadowed by Neutral Milk Hotel’s stunning 1998 masterpiece “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea,” which Schneider produced, and again by today’s surging popularity of Of Montreal. As the collective’s energy slowly dissipated over the subsequent years, the Apples’ Beach Boys-meets-Beatles-meets-Kraut-rock songs continued to inspire hope and embody that original utopian spirit. Still flying under the pop-music radar, the Apples attracted such VIP fans as Elijah Wood (who signed the Apples to his boutique record label) and Stephen Colbert (who has hosted the band on his Comedy Central show twice and inspired an overly sweet tribute song). In the last handful of years, the band has really come to repay the faith that the fans have shown with stronger, more cohesive albums.

While the band’s last record and arguably best, “New Magnetic Wonder,” signaled that the Apples hadn’t yet depleted Schneider’s imagination for play-acting Brian Wilson on a bender, the new record embraces irony and cheesiness with a plume. “Travellers In Space And Time” seeks escapism through a fusion of tin foil, sci-fi imagery and plastically, R&B-tinged dance-floor rhythms. The closet possible allegory to this record would be what if Beck had hooked up with the psychedelic loonies in the Flaming Lips to back him up on his futuro-funk disc “Midnite Vulutres” instead of the solemn songwriter masterwork “Sea Change.” Schneider and company have the same mix of songsmith skills with madcap laughter. Even better, the group on this disc strives to embrace the embodiment of Jeff Lynne’s ELO, mixing corporate-rock tackiness with sincerity. Luckily enough, these songs are redeemed by his knack for molding teeth-rotting hooks.

The Apples are also shielded from suspicion that they’re selling out. This is because the big tent that the Elephant 6 Collective casts — uniting together artists with wide-ranging stylistic perspectives from the Bowie-esque pop of Of Montreal to the weirdo-noise rock of the Olivia Tremor Control. A band’s membership in the collective gave a perception of common underground-rock ethics that wasn’t always accurate, but gave each band apple wiggle room as it stretched past rock ‘n’ roll norms. As we know, membership has its privileges. Add to this, Schneider’s own independent nature and the Apples can lead and yet still stand apart. While the collective’s base of operations was in Athens, the band leader always took great pains to keep his project away from the center of orbit. First, based in Denver and now headquartered in Lexington, Ky., he has been the only founding member of the collective to keep a band in the field while functioning as the resident producer for many of his pal’s records. He’s a team player, but one who also had ambitions of his own.

Those ambitions are now fixed on reanimating the ’70s music that once dominated the FM radio dial. Armed with a Vocoder, synthesizers and other techno studio doodads, Schneider and company, which now includes former Olivia Tremor Control chum Bill Doss, are more hit-single focused then ever before. (Maybe the use of the Apples’ song “Energy” for a car commercial on this season of “American Idol” has proven inspirational.) Instead of turning to Timbaland, the band glosses up its bubblegum aesthetic into a major space-funk production and infuses each gem with some Chic-sanctioned beats so as to create nuggets of ear candy that would likely leave old Jeff Lynne smiling like a wooly Cheshire cat.

The album’s first single, “Dance Floor,” is the greatest achievement of this highly danceable, silver-age concept. The drum machine counts out a reception-ready down beat, which Schneider layers with keyboards of squeaks, squawks, squiggles and faux strings that propel this celebration so it’s a soundtrack for a dance-party scene deleted from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001.” Schneider’s cutesy, idiosyncratic vocals have always stuck out in the rock crowd, but here, they fit in as a cuddlier update on the Bee Gees’ falsetto. When Schneider and his robotic chorus bleat out the brilliant hook of “You know the dance floor/Isn’t there no more,” he is recognizing that disco is dead, but this heart and body won’t let it all go.

What this band won’t let go is the weird ELO fixation. Some tracks seem to just channel a funkier version of the British group with a chirpy quality that keeps in line with Schneider’s musical worldview. “Hey Elevator” has an urban pulse that’s stacked with multiple harmonies of guitars and call-and-response backing vocals in the Anglo-rock tradition. A more explicit and interesting outgrowth of its ELO fandom is the piano-based “Told You Once.” A big-ticket chorus of computerized voices moon over slamming piano chords, trilling James Brown guitars and a polyrhythmic groove that are downright irresistible. The Apples won’t win points for originality, but they’ve always favored burnishing a song to perfection than in the joys of avant-garde discovery.

Although the record keeps its aim on getting butts to move, “Travellers In Space And Time” does have the sense of diversity in sound we’ve come to expect of the group. “No Vacation” leaps forth like an excellent Ben Folds Five outtake, augmented with frantic harpsichord runs. The guitar crunch of “Dignified Dignitary” is pure power pop that harkens back to the Apples in Stereo of years ago. “Wings Away” is cigarette lighter-ready ballad that Paul McCartney and Wings would have easily claimed off waivers if they had such a thing for stadium anthems.

The biggest departure from the record’s common tableau is Doss’ “Next Year At About The Same Time,” a low-fi burner that recalls a sexier, fuzzier Smashing Pumpkins instead of keeping with Schneider’s cheery dream pop. More akin to the grittier songs on 2002’s “Velocity Of Sound,” the track is absent any of the space-station effects and rave-tastic keyboards. Instead, it’s a pure, smoldering rock song that embodies the subdued ying to the rest of the album’s extroverted yang.

Ultimately, the elements of push and pull are what make “Travellers In Space And Time” and the Apples in Stereo an exciting act to follow. Schneider is a scholar of music history and student of forms. At the same time, his embrace of psychedelia’s warped sensibilities means he’s willing to experiment, distort and play with the rules he and his bandmates are willing to live by. The discord within the group’s sound has always been artistically interesting, but only the maturity and refinement most recent LPs make it possible for the Apples to be continue to be underground icons.

“Travellers In Space And Time” isn’t the culmination in the continuing evolution of the Apples in Stereo. It’s the latest weird installment. It’s a record that demonstrates the dream lives on, and it’s definitely a weird one.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2010 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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