When you’re cruising the racks at Cutler’s this weekend looking for some party music you hope will impress your crush, don’t be deterred by the gaudy abomination that graces the cover of the new The Apples in Stereo record. Though the band, fresh off a five-year hiatus, returns with an album chock full of bouncing ditties and charming hymns, the album art would suggest otherwise. A National Geographic cover designed by a five year old learning the art of collage, it features banana leaves, Renaissance busts, tigers, sunflowers, Doric columns, hippopotami, caterpillars, giraffes, mushrooms, butterflies, books…
Never mind that mess; the new album is far easier to digest than its packaging. “New Magnetic Wonder” is a definite change-up for the Elephant 6 darlings best known for their ambient lo-fi. But their new release is what a dissection of the title would suggest. There is funky rock a la The “New” Pornographers and trippy ballads akin to The “Magnetic” Fields, but the most obviously borrowed quality is the characteristically whimsical Ray Davies swoon and thumping syncopation found on the Kinks’ “‘Wonder’boy.” So maybe that last one is a stretch, but what is certain is that these comparisons indicate the derivative nature of this album’s sound. That said, the execution is crisp and careful, and too much pop is never a bad thing.
The fast tracks on “New Magnetic Wonder” feature melodies both cosmic and quirky. The charged canticle “Sunndal Song” features the tinny vocals of drummer Hilarie Sidney coasting over shining guitar and sputtering percussion. Also slick is “Same Old Drag.” One of the finest on the record, the track is packed with synthesizer: The leading pulsing piano is quickly doused with rollicking keyboard taps and echoing chants, but Freddie Mercury conquered the psychedelic hum with more mystery and intrigue.
Coming off the high of a frantic and often kitschy opening, the album’s second half takes the time to bask in a colorful swirl of rich melodies and layered harmonies. “Play Tough” features a dreamy, symphonic, lyrical whirl, the romantic “7 Stars” jams under eerie, moog-filtered vocals and the 13-second “Droplet” lends a jazzy pulse midway through. The piece de resistance of the album, however, is “Beautiful Machine Parts 3-4.” A gorgeous meditation, it pours a rich melancholic haze over delicate chimes and sugared yearning.
Apples in Stereo’s striking instrumentation shines through these tracks, but all hopes for uniqueness are dulled by a glutinous attack of The Kinks scattered throughout “New Magnetic Wonder.” And though the immaculate British Invasion band always stood in the shadow of the Beatles, they don’t need Apples to bring them to the fore. Twelve seconds into “Play Tough,” the track delves into the evenly cascading chord beats found on such Kinks tracks as “Sunday Afternoon” and “Waterloo Sunset,” and the falsetto harmonies repeated throughout the chorus are also reminiscent of the sweet musings of the Davies brothers.
In addition to the unfortunate copy-cat nature of “New Magnetic Wonder,” some songs just fall painfully flat. The opening two tracks suffer from an overdose of cowbell, and “Open Eyes” is just boring. But, though the album’s inconsistency is a definite debacle, several of those recognizable tracks, though weaker than their inspirations, do pack enough punch to draw you to the dance floor.
Please don’t waste too much time digging through the images piled onto the cover of “New Magnetic Wonder.” The band packs a lot of music into a mere 52 minutes — a whopping 24 tracks to be exact — and there are many flutterings of red delicious, so just open the jewel case and enjoy what awaits you.
So how do I like them Apples? Why, thanks for asking; I like ’em just fine.