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Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Apples In Stereo: Fun Trick Noisemaker


1) The Narrator; 2) Tidal Wave; 3) High Tide; 4) Green Machine; 5) Winter Must Be Cold; 6) She's Just Like Me / Taking Time; 7) Glowworm; 8) Dots 1-2-3; 9) Lucky Charm; 10) Innerspace; 11) Show The World; 12) Love You Alice / D; 13) Pine Away.

If we roughen it up real rough, and reduce it all to the two basic oppositions — Happy / Sad and Stupid / Smart — we can, sort of, get four possible combinations. Somehow, though, in the world of art, or popular music, at least, the attractive forces between «Sad» and «Smart», on one hand, and «Happy» and «Stupid», on the other, generally overpower the other two combinations. No surprise there: the same connection may be observable if you deal with people themselves, not just the art they create.

By the mid-Nineties, however, the grunge explosion became so infectious that «Sad» (in all of its varieties, such as «Angry», «Suicidal», «Anti-Social», etc.) became too huge to mate exclusively with «Smart». People like Courtney Love heralded the «Stupid-Sad» connection and launched it into vegetative reproduction mode. Happy music had little choice but to retreat to the most pathe­tic of the intelligence-free corners (Paula Abdul!). So perhaps it was inevitable that, sooner or la­ter, a «Happy-Smart» antidote would eventually resurface and vitaminize us all over again.

Such is the general scheme of things that some pop music experts force on us. Like each general scheme, it has its vulnerable spots and inconsistencies, but it does give one a better understanding of the importance of bands like The Apples In Stereo when they emerged in the mid-Nineties with their sunshine-heavy, neo-psychedelic brand of power pop. It also commands respect and admiration for their debut album, Fun Trick Noisemaker — even though it sucks.

The recipé for an Apples song is relatively simple, and hasn't changed that much over the centu­ries. A colorful folk-pop riff, distorted just enough to give it a rough garage sheen, but never far enough to push it into «hard rock», let alone «metal» territory; lots of overdubs to commemorate Phil Spector and drive your mind into fuzzy-wuzzy frenzy at the same time; slurrily murmured, but expertly harmonized vocals to bring back memories of the Beach Boys without pretending to achieve the same kind of glossy perfection; a few vintage synth effects to emphasize the psyche­delic effect — and then play it all on repeat for 30-40 minutes.

That such a brilliantly calculated, analytical mind as that of band leader Robert Schneider's (in his spare time, he researches analytic number theory, which does not surprise me in the least) could have failed in setting up that kind of sound is unthinkable. That it could have resulted in lots and lots and lots of perfectly sounding songs that mean absolutely nothing and leave a listener cold as ice, on the other hand, is quite thinkable, and I know at least one such listener (me). I love colour­ful, life-asserting power-pop as much as the next guy, yet I am still completely bedazzled how, even after five consecutive listens to Noisemaker, not a single one of these songs has managed to leave the slightest trace of impression in my head. This is not Gentle Giant or Ornette Coleman; this is simple pop music — it's supposed to make an impression now. Or never.

Granted, while it's playing, Fun Trick Noisemaker is fabulous. Or, at least, «cool»: just a very very awesome sound to have blasting out of your speakers as you contentedly explain to all the riff-raff around you that this music was, in fact, written and recorded in 1995, not in 1965. The one thing that does give it away is the formulaic monotonousness: even the worst garage bands in the Sixties were much more bent on trying out different kinds of sound, but the Apples cling on to that recipé described above as if they simply knew nothing about any other types of sounds. (One reason why calling this music «Beatlesque», like many people on the Web do, is misleading: not only did the Beatles never sound in such a uniform manner, they never really had this particu­lar type of sound on any of their songs at all — even if they'd wanted to, George Martin probably wouldn't let them, considering it too «dirty» for his ears).

But I have no problem with the monotonousness. This is the kind of sound Schneider and his pals dig, and it's all right; who am I to complain if they want to be the AC/DC of psycho-garage pop? The only problem I find is that these riffs, these vocal melodies, these arrangements do not speak to me. The Beach Boys do, the Kinks do, even Love's Arthur Lee, with all his flaws, still has so­mething to say. The Apples In Stereo tell me only one thing: they love cool-sounding happy pop music, and are ready to kill for their right to worship it. Fine! I respect them for it. Now hire a de­cent songwriter, won't you?

I don't know, maybe it's the vocals — Schneider's murmur is supposed to have some sort of mes­merizing effect, but not on me, I love me some good clean singing if it's pop music. Or maybe it's the intentional lo-fi production values — for all their love for Brian Wilson, the latter would pro­bably prefer to fall back on his drug habit than to sanction his production stamp on this mess.

But in the end, I still guess that it's mainly the songwriting. One hint: the only song on here that I honestly loved upon first (okay, second) listen was 'Winter Must Be Cold', written and sung by drummer Hilarie Sidney rather than Schneider. There is something to the mildly epic riff of that song that I don't find on the other tracks, and, by all means, Sidney is a much better vocalist than Schneider (I do not say «singer» because, in order to appreciate someone as a singer, you need to hear them clearly, and the basic approach on Noisemaker is that all the vocals must sound as if recorded through a set of three heavy pillows).

The only other thing I remember is the main riff to 'Tidal Wave', the album opener, although I am pretty sure it was just a slight variation on one of the Nuggets classics (don't remember which one exactly). To me, that's telling — alas, it only further confirms those deep suspicions that say that the best kind of pop songs are written by «street trash» who don't give a damn, rather than deep-thinking, analytically minded college kids who want to materialize their picture-perfect vi­sions of what that Ideal Pop Art Object should look / sound like.

It is very easy to be seduced and lulled by the sound, though, which may explain all the rave im­pressions. And obviously, a «thumbs down» rating would be out of the question — not only be­cause the band evetually got somewhat better, but also because the infuriated brain would never allow the disappointed heart to take precedence in the case of an album so smartly crafted, so res­pectful of first-rate influences, and so revolutionary and influential in its approach. It should be kept in mind that the «Elephant Six» brand of music and related artists, who did produce their fair share of contemporary classics, certainly do not end with The Apples In Stereo — but they did begin with The Apples In Stereo. And there is every reason to insist that you do hear Fun Trick Noisemaker, if you haven't already done so — not just out of historical importance, but because it really sounds fine while it's on. Who knows, perhaps it will still make your list of all-time clas­sics, provided you do not make the mistake of giving it a second thought, or trying to replay these songs in your mind once the record is over.

Check "Fun Trick Noisemaker" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Fun Trick Noisemaker" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. I was always kind of baffled by the positive reaction this album gets. The handful of times I listened to it my reaction was something to the effect of "uh... that's it?" Thankfully this wasn't my first AiS album, so I wasn't turned off the band or anything.
    As far as I'm concerned the best they did in the early years was "Her Wallpaper Reverie", where they managed to get some of those 60s tributes to actually be pretty catchy. And the best they've done recently (and overall) is "New Magnetic Wonder", I think Schnieder writes better songs when he's trying to be ELO rather than the Beatles.

  2. You've perfectly articulated my feeling that Robert's approach to pop music is a bit on the rote side. Elephant Six compatriots like the Minders and Beulah did this sort of music with way more inspiration and got way less critical praise for some unfathomable reason. The Apples have certainly had their moments over the past fifteen years and are worth a look for fans of Sixties power pop, but are hardly the epitome of its 90's revival.

  3. Your observations are pretty much right on the money. I do have a hard time remembering the songs when the album is over. As Mick Jagger once commented (referring to "TSMR"), an album like this is more of a sound experience than a song experience.

    Which is why the album, as you said, sounds great when its on. I really like the band's attitude. This is a case when this album pulls off what another album that obviously influenced it couldn't -- namely, "The Beach Boys Love You". That album was a failure because the Boys were too old and the voices too decrepit to pull off the naive-childlike-fun atmosphere Brian Wilson was trying to invoke.

    On the other hand, it absolutely works here, because Schneider and crew were much younger -- and they can actually SING in the manner that the songs call for. Which brings me to the album's major flaw. The vocals are way too far down in the mix. They make Michael Stipe's singing on early R.E.M. albums sound crystal clear in comparison. If the voices were brought more to the forefront of the mix, the appeal of songs like "Tidal Wave", "Lucky Charm" and "Glowworm" would be much more apparent. I fail to understand why it was so hip to make songs inaudible back in the day.

    Still, it's a fun, pseudo-retro exercise. Please don't ask me to him any of the songs, though.


  4. I actually read this review before I heard the album. I think it lowered my expectations enough that its quality (in my assessment) came as a pleasant surprise.

    Who knows--maybe it's just this sound strikes a chord in my brain waves. Somehow, this is EXACTLY what I would expect "'60's garage pop regurgitated by ironic '90's punk-influenced intellectual college kids" to come out as. If that isn't intrinsically off-putting, then . . . well, it hooks me.

    Something about these songs (particularly the second half). . . I dunno. It's kind of like hearing the songs from Highway 61 Revisited for the first time and out of context: you don't necessarily love it like the critics say you should, but you FEEL there's some intangible thing that's timeless about it. Something that makes you go back. And before you know it, the songs are a part of your DNA. In spite of themselves.

    I should emphasize--I think most of the first side is filler, including the drummer-sung song you liked. Then again, perhaps it just serves as apt sonic "setup" for the gem after gem that fills side two, which seems well-crafted like little else on debut albums of the period, indie or otherwise.

    Also, the Powerpuff Girls ripped off "Show the World" for their episode "Mime for a Change". So, there's also that.

  5. "The Gay Parade" by Of Montreal is so much better than this.