Review Summary: It feels like reusable sunshine in a can with no expiry date. (But where's Non Pythagorean Composition 2?!!??)
I used to listen to very depressing music. In fact, I used to almost hate any music that was happy for a relatively long period of time. After one summer, I made a personal decision to be happier, because I mean, brooding to Radiohead is fun and all, but I realized it may just be a colossal waste of time if all it got me was worse. After this summer was over, I started wanting to expand the music that I listened to, possibly to accompany the change I needed. So I went to my encyclopaedic friend and inquired about bands that I might like. He gave me stuff like the Flaming Lips and Neutral Milk Hotel. I eventually fell in love with the latter, and praised it for its godliness. A long while after my slight musical reinvention, my friend came to me and proclaimed this band, The Apples in Stereo as one of the greatest things he had ever heard. Plus, he said, they are from the same collective as Neutral Milk Hotel. At the time I did not know what the Elephant Six Recording Company was, but was nonetheless intrigued.
He handed me New Magnetic Wonder and waited with an urgency that showed me a lot of promise for whatever this was going to be. As soon as the first chiming notes rang loud on the speakers, in front of all of our musically inept friends, and the Vocoder chirped “Turn up your stereo!!!” I was embarrassed, and shocked that he found this good at all.
How stupid I am at first impressions.
He left the album at my house, and I started to listen more and more. Eventually I was waking up to it every morning, and now I am proud to proclaim it as one of the best pop records ever made.
With the exception of my failed beginnings with this record, it is instantly accessible. It is a light and breezy effort, but somehow doesn’t feel disposable. It feels like reusable sunshine in a can with no expiry date.
Like many other Elephant Six recordings, the album is built around a core of “real songs” padded with short connectors that vary from 0:15 – 0:50 in length. Depending on who you are this is either a nice break from the full tracks, or annoying noise in the way of your gooey pop explosions. Personally, I find them nice if you are going to listen to the entire album straight, but none of these would really constitute listening to separately (other than My Pretend which is a song, just ridiculously short).
The vocals are constantly cheery and can’t help but make you smile. Robert Schneider sings in such a strange Brian Wilson meets Beatles meets indie voice, but it works extremely well and although it is constant throughout the album, it never really becomes repetitive.
That is another credit to the album; it is a whopping 24 track epic that never really gets tiresome. Each song sounds just enough different to be excited for what’s to come.
The album’s sound can be described as a new age time warp to the late 60s. There is no denying that “Sun is Out” owes its life to the Beatles’ extended outros, and the White Albums’ ragged nature. Also the harmonies on the album seem to take leads from much of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds era. But where many bands can simply copy an artist’s trademark sound and call it their own, The Apples put an electronic edge to their influences which creates something new altogether. The songs are much faster and danceable than any song Brian Wilson could come up with, and there is a much cleaner sound on this record than anything that either band had ever come up with.
The album starts out with one of the best succession of songs put on an album ever. From “Can You Feel It?” to “Joanie Don’t U Worry” there is no dull moment. Each full song has excellent and inventive music from the pounding synth/guitar/drums-driven opener, the albums slows down only the slightest with “Skyway” until the chorus comes in and brings you back up to pop heaven full with “Doo doo doo doo doo” harmonies and a driving rhythm. “Mellotron 1” is the first of the connecting tracks and is quite…well…mellow, just a simple line with a synth playing a melody overtop. “Energy” starts as a hippy-dream reminiscent acoustic fantasy until it develops into a spacey rock chorus and outro. “Same Old Drag” is a piano-led-head-bopping track that starts out as very pulsing, until smoothing out over the chorus. There is then the coda “Joanie Don’t U Worry” which sounds like it was performed almost entirely on Vocoder.
From there the songs coast along staying at the same pace and feeling, until the aforementioned “Sun is Out” drops a perfect bit of Beatles replica into the mix. Two connecting pieces of music then introduce what could possibly be the album’s best and most defining moment.
“7 Stars” is epic in its scope, and is near perfectly sculpted. The perfect length of 3:45, it starts with a space rock explosion of perfectly intermingling interstellar sounds, and then there is the chorus. Explosive and again, with what on this album has now become a trademark, the computerized background vocals complimenting the song perfectly.
“Sunday Sounds” is Hilarie Sidney’s second song on the album as lead singer (previous one being “Sunndal Song” and there is a similar air to both songs. She has such an airy voice that seems to float over the music, never feeling the need to change directions or tone. Sadly, she left the band after the recording of this album.
“Open Eyes” is a psychedelic, distorted, sweeping song that lunges back and forth to create an odd feeling for the listener. Strings play underneath a slick, distorted guitar riff for most of the song, while near the end, multiple guitars and sound effects culminate until going back to the chorus as an outro.
“Crimson” and “Pre-Crimson” are both connecting songs, the first being the sound of bells, and the second being a collage of sounds that brings to mind the inside of a cave being invaded by aliens.
“Vocoder Ba-Ba” is an intro to “Radiation” which is more of a ballad. It has very subdued verses, which go into slightly louder choruses accented my simple background vocals, added guitars and a simple drumbeat.
After “Radiation” comes to a slow close, “Beautiful Machine Pt.1” kicks the album into one last stream of overdrive. Complete with multiple vocals, driving drum beat, rocking guitar and blasting horns. This keeps up until the song suddenly changes to the slow, lamenting “pt.2” which feels like you’ve been brought back to earth suddenly after some long trip. Seamlessly changing to “pt.3”, the suite starts to build steam, but much slower this time. Vocals come in front of a backdrop of horns, and then disappear as a distorted guitar takes upon a slow building riff. Behind the guitar, instruments and effect are slowly added, and you start to realize that the track has exploded without you even noticing when a beautiful string arrangement comes in, only to be further embellished by the sound of bells overtop the jubilant masterpiece that the Apples have created. It fades out, but then back in again for a few seconds, until all sound is dismantled and you are left with the 2 closing tracks. “My Pretend” is a quaint Robert Schneider singing cheerfully overtop a single electric piano, much in the way that “Her Majesty” closes the Beatles’ masterpiece Abbey Road. And then there is the clumsy, off key, invented scale song “Non-Pythagorean Composition 3” (there is no #2).
Seeing as this review is already immensely long, I’ll make the conclusion short. This album is amazing. Every part of it seems calculated to make you want to listen to it over and over. If you are a fan of Elephant Six (guest stars abound on this one), or just a fan of feel good music that isn’t completely stupid, or just someone who wants a little happiness in your life, or just a human being I recommend buying this album right now.