Driven by the Denver-based husband-and-wife team of singer-songwriter-producer Robert Schneider and drummer-singer Hilarie Sidney, the Apples in Stereo sound sort of like their name. They sound like you'd imagine a band to sound with albums called Fun Trick Noisemaker, Tone Soul Evolution, and The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone. They sound like the Beatles.
But if Rubber Soul/Revolver/Magical Mystery Tour would seem to be the holy trinity in Schneider and Sidney's personal pop canon, their intense formal commitment to Sixties rock and pop is deeper, and far more gauche, than that. No, not just Pet Sounds and the Kinks. Schneider would probably cop to the Monkees and the Zombies. How about the Turtles and the Hollies?
The vast, often obscure tributaries that have extended from post-punk rock's mighty Mississippi cater to such connoisseurship, of course. But the Apples in Stereo's homemade psychedelic pop surpasses pretty much all of their like-minded contemporaries and several of their sources (um, like the Turtles and Hollies) for several reasons: because their music is too grounded to be hippieish yet too wide-eyed to be just an indie-rock put-on; because Schneider so skillfully and lovingly reworks those durable tropes for all the renewing pleasure they offer.
The Apples in Stereo are no doubt best known (or, at this point, "remembered") as the spearhead of a "movement": the Elephant 6 collective. A coterie of like-minded bands born from a group of friends in tiny, unlikely Ruston, Louisiana, Elephant 6 began with Schneider's Apples and the also Ruston-bred Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control before spiraling out into what seemed like dozens of connected bands.
Elephant 6 was indie/alt's great rock hope in between Pavement and riot grrl and the current so-called garage-rock boom. That it never quite achieved the same level of critical acclaim as the former isn't much of a mystery, I suppose. That it never achieved the level of commercial success of the latter can perhaps be chalked up to the vagaries of marketing and commerce, because these two minimovements have an awful lot in common, with much the same set of cultural contradictions and aesthetic values: Both are repackagings of the past that nevertheless felt/feel cutting-edge. Each is both an arch, intellectualized form of dress-up (with a cool cachet that seems to turn off as many people as it attracts) and yet totally sincere in its devotion to genre tropes.
But finally, and most importantly, the music of the Apples in Stereo and similar bands is of a piece with the likes of the White Stripes and the Hives because it sounds like rock-and-roll --back beats, harmonies, dollops of soul, catchy melodies, cool riffs, space and movement -- while almost all guitar music on commercial radio now just sounds like rock. The real secret of the appeal of these musics to the record geeks who adore them and so much of the general listening public who get to hear them is that they remind listeners of what made rock-and-roll so fun to begin with: that it just plain sounded good -- just like so much hip hop today just plain sounds good.
Their potential pop moment past, the Apples in Stereo have kept on in their termite-like pursuit of perfect melodies and hooks. They've even found different avenues for getting their music heard outside the cloistered-yet-supportive network of college radio and indie record shops. They contributed a song to the animated series The Power Puff Girls and have even sold songs for commercials. (You can currently hear their "Go" on cable ads for Road Runner Internet service.) One might question the ethics of a band like Apples in Stereo for licensing their songs to Madison Avenue, but as Schneider explained to The New York Times Magazine in reference to the use of the band's "Strawberry Fire" for a Sony ad, "Radio is controlled by this huge industry. Ads are controlled by a few creative people. They probably did art in college. Maybe they were college radio programmers. It's more of a sellout to go to a commercial radio station and kiss someone's ass. It's more of a sellout to do cheesy meet-and-greets for some major label."
The Apples in Stereo hit town this week in support of their fourth full-length album, the breezy, well-titled Velocity of Sound. It's the band's noisiest record yet -- 28 minutes of raw, homemade garage pop, with guitars more scuffed-up and vocals more distorted than ever before. It's not as expansive or relaxed as their last, the comparatively epic The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone, but it may be the band's most arch album of all, as these well-into-their-30s parents have made what is essentially a teen album. And it's less a document of teen life as remembered as one ripped from the pages of Archie comics, as illustrated in the self-consciously adolescent lyrics of "That's Something That I Do" ("Your friends think it's lame/That you don't play the game/They're gonna look back one day/And see that you put them to shame") or the "little girl who works at Dairy Queen" who gets her due in the Beach Boys homage "She's Telling Lies."
It's an appropriate strategy. This is one band that has always been content to make real a world that exists primarily in their own heads and record collections. With teen music crowding the marketplace, why shouldn't the Apples in Stereo offer a better alternate universe?