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Popped Out 

The Apples in Stereo drop a slick new symphony -- maybe a bit too slick.

Eric Allen (left) wants to tickle you with his 'stashe.
  • Eric Allen (left) wants to tickle you with his 'stashe.

It takes time to craft the quintessential pop record. Spend over a year in the studio, record in five different cities, use everything from mandolins to Mellotrons, and then mix songs employing 96 separate tracks. It sounds like something straight out of the Brian Wilson chronicles, but it's actually the tale behind New Magnetic Wonder, the latest creation from the Colorado collective Apples in Stereo.

In fact, it's the Apples' first album in five years, and it brings back their catchy style of '60s-inspired classic rock. But New Magnetic Wonder also breaks ground as the group's most elaborate studio effort yet, ushering in a new chapter of uptown swank and opulence -- which may seem a little lavish for the Apples' longtime fans. Gone is the lo-fi hippie experimentation of 2000's Look Away, replaced with blistering and bubbly singles like "Energy" -- a tune so universally catchy, it could be the next Coke jingle.

"It gets stuck in your head," agrees bassist Eric Allen, talking from Denver. "When Robert [Schneider] wrote 'Energy' and we first started playing it, we didn't record it for about a year, and it was so stuck in my head. At home, I would wake up in the morning and that song would be there, and I hadn't played it in months."

Each song on New Magnetic Wonder is a lush and layered tribute to popular rock and roll. The Apples' main singer-songwriter, Robert Schneider, has written and produced the equivalent of a pop symphony -- a category that includes such albums as the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and A New World Record by Electric Light Orchestra. Out of the album's 24 tracks, there are 12 gems and 12 segues, creating one long, uninterrupted dream. The album's fantastical exuberance is further enhanced by one good-vibe song title after another: "Sun Is Out," "Can You Feel It?" "Radiation."

"We've always kind of liked tripped-out psychedelic overdone studio records," says Allen. "To me, it kind of goes back to our first album, Fun Trick Noisemaker, which had a lot of extra stuff on it, and the tracks kind of flowed seamlessly into each other, not really breaking between the songs."

This stands in stark contrast to the Apples' last album, Velocity of Sound. "It was straight-ahead and stripped-out, without a lot of extra cool studio stuff," remembers Allen. "I mean, I love Velocity for sure, but this [new album] is getting back to more of a traditional Apples sound."

But New Magnetic Wonder is also the band's most ornate and complex production. Recording over 18 months in Brooklyn, Denver, Georgia, and the Kentucky towns of Benton and Lexington, Schneider and company tinkered each song to perfection, using everything from guitars and synths to clarinets and weird toys.

The record took so long to make, in fact, that the band's lineup actually changed during the process, now consisting of core members Schneider, Allen, and guitarist John Hill (along with several auxiliary musicians). Longtime drummer and vocalist Hilarie Sidney -- omnipresent on the last album -- departed during the band's closing live performance of Georgia's 2006 Athens Popfest. She was previously married to frontman Schneider (their divorce went public in 2004). But Sidney still drums on parts of the new album, while giving a great vocal performance on its most indie-rock moment, "Sunndal Song."

"It's definitely changed things," says Allen. "It's just kind of strange. Hilarie is one of my best friends, and we've been playing together for 11 years. But people change and lives change, and you got to do whatever makes you happy."

The Apples have also had a change of labels. After 10 years with SpinART, their releases are now distributed through three different indies: Yep Roc, Simian, and their own imprint, the recently revived Elephant 6. Interestingly enough, Simian is owned by the world's most famous hobbit, Elijah Wood, who also directed the video single for "Energy."

"We could have signed with a label that's listening to Velocity of Sound, and they want something a little harder or more stripped-down, and we end up going the opposite direction, and they're not happy, and we're not happy," says Allen. "Yep Roc and Simian have been fantastic already, and the record isn't even out yet."

Obviously, the Apples have come a long way from their humble beginnings in the Elephant 6 collective, a now-legendary group of friends in Denver that jammed, shared ideas, and ended up spawning some of the most notable independent bands of the '90s, including Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel. And while the Elephant 6 aesthetic -- neopsychedelic rock with eclectic and exotic instrumentation -- still reverberates through the Apples' music, this new album (the band's sixth) champions a stylized studio approach that feels fairly overgroomed, aimed at mass appeal.

The next time you hear the Apples, you won't be in your college buddy's basement, spinning LPs and smoking cheeba; you'll be watching Grey's Anatomy with your girlfriend later that night, which means lo-fi indie purists are sure to be turned off by its instant popularity and its overpowering pop sheen.

"In the case of this album, I like the way everything turned out, and live it's definitely different," says Allen. "It's still loud and rocking, with the synths and backing vocals, but it's always a little bit faster. It's definitely punchy and fast. Our albums will be slower and prettier, and then live it's just mayhem."

More by Keith Gribbins

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