The Apples (who play the Bottom of the Hill and the Kilowatt this weekend) are, geographically and psychologically, a Denver band. They're also a pop band, a nostalgic band, and a happy band: They get MTV in Denver, but you'd never know it listening to the Apples. Anachronistic in sound and refreshingly irony-free, Colorado transplants and Apples principals John Hill (guitars) and couple Robert Schneider (everything but drums) and Hilarie Sidney (drums) have grown from a slight indie band to an orchestral psychedelic pop group that makes dense, beautiful records that owe mountains to Pet Sounds. In doing so, they're proving that milling the sounds of pop's wonder years doesn't mandate a smirk instead of a smile.
"It makes you feel kind of cra-zeee," says Sidney of the thin Denver atmosphere. That's one way of getting behind Tone Soul Evolution, the Apples' second album of new material since their signal 1995 release, Fun Trick Noisemaker. The new album is cra-zeee like rolling in grass, cra-zeee like a red jug drunk on a Saturday afternoon, cra-zeee like ringing guitars and horns and organs and ooh-ooh-ahhs. But if it's a cra-zeee record, it's also tinted with a sadness and loss that Noisemaker lacked. Evolution is fall to Noisemaker's endless summer; it's still bright out, but the shadows are longer and winter is close. From "Try to Remember": "If I cry I know I should think of December/ Summertime and sunshine are not far from that."
Sidney is talking from a hotel room in Montreal, where the clerks answer in French and the Apples are stopped for a night with Son Volt (in what has to classify as one of the weirder concert bills of the year). She concedes that the constant Colorado sunshine energizes both her and the band -- "Denver has that effect on a lot of people; maybe it's because the air is thinner" -- and agrees that Evolution represents an, uh, evolution.
"It's darker in tone," says Sidney. "It's more serious, less fluffy in general. It's more about things that happen every day ... songs about fights and relationships and being unsure."
It's also about death ("The Silvery Light of a Dream"), referential history ("Tin Pan Alley"), and assholes ("Heard About Your Fame"). Pop never promises the world; that's punk's job. Pop tells a tale (boy meets girl), says it's sorry (so very sorry), and daydreams (about what could've been). Sometimes sad but rarely weary, pop is excited and bursting with three minutes of exuberance. The Apples' pop is all of these things.
"Seems So" opens Evolution and sets a more consistent tone in 10 seconds than most records accomplish in 45 minutes. A guitar rings in the right speaker and it's almost instantly filled out by the tail end of the sound in the left. Within a second, it's covered by a chiming set of notes that play out as the sound resonates for four more seconds. Eric Allen's thick, warm bass is matched for the first few beats by drums and then deviates with a dip and a rise. Schneider's vocals come in and he's singing yet another melody. The words are about waking up in the middle of the night to a blinding light, a UFO or something extraordinary, and the verses deliver the kind of hooks that other bands save for choruses. When the chorus of hand-claps and ooh-la-la-las rolls around, he's trying to tell someone else about the experience, but he doubts himself. In the next verse he worries what his friend will think: "When somebody sees the sky open wide/ And rides the solar system/ If he saw the moonlight pass him by/ What would you think about him?" The query has the singsongy weight of a grade-school come-on ("What would you say if I told you someone has a crush on you?"). But at the end of the tune, his voice goes up a note or two and it turns out he's laying it all out for a shrink: "Oh doctor, it seems so, I don't know." Musically, if not art, it's supreme craft. Lyrically, the song is humble but not self-conscious. That's pop.
The Apples are now the Apples in Stereo. The band added the prepositional phrase because "The Apples" is not the most original name in the world. It's irritating -- not as irritating as Apples U.S. or some such nonsense -- but the choice is awfully telling: Tone Soul Evolution is the kind of record that you're supposed to listen to with a set of big headphones. The Apples' songs are as dense as rock gets these days; seemingly simple but endlessly complicated in production.
When the Apples released their first 7-inches the band was perhaps too conveniently pigeonholed as part of a wave of lo-fi indie rock. Fronted by Sebadoh's Lou Barlow and Guided by Voices' Robert Pollard, lo-fi earned its cachet by never leaving, or even wanting to leave, the bedroom four-track. Back then, Barlow and pals claimed that they knew their songs could transcend shitty magnetic static; they didn't. Critics and college radio DJs mistook the lo-fi aesthetic for a nonexistent lo-fi movement, thinking that the medium was the message; it wasn't. The Apples, although lo-fi on 7-inches like the Apples EP, were obviously trying to take the four-track as far as it could go. Tellingly, when the band made a real record, they upgraded to eight-track in search of fidelity.
On Tone Soul Evolution they've found it. Drummer Sidney says the main difference between the first album and its follow-up is the production and the number of studio tricks they tried to avoid making the same record twice. "That's what I hate about modern music," says Sidney. "Somebody will formulate a formula and keep using the formula over and over again. That can get kind of boring." That almost happened on Evolution: The band originally wrote and recorded the songs in Schneider's eight-track home studio (unapologetically called Pet Sounds), but jumped to a 24-track studio to rerecord them live, add overdubs, and mix.
The 26-year-old Schneider is the unsung genius behind the Elephant 6 Recording Company. He's both the consummate session player and a talented engineer, something between Flying Nun's Chris Knox and Shimmy Disc's Kramer. More a collective than a record label (but that too), Elephant 6 coalesced around three friends from Ruston, La.: Schneider, Will Hart, and Jeff Magnum. Back then, the trio listened to loads of records from the 1960s and traded tapes among themselves. By the time they all split, Schneider to Denver, Hart to Athens, and Magnum to roam freely, their friendship was institutional. Magnum built his solo guitar into the dusty pop calliope called Neutral Milk Hotel. Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss, who also grew up in Louisiana, spun into the wildly psychedelic Olivia Tremor Control.
The bands were ready to release a 7-inch before anyone was willing to release it for them. And so Elephant 6, the record company, was born. That first Apples single wasn't lo-fi, it was no-fi. Muddy, driving, and skipping like a jump rope, it caught the attention of both fanzine America and spinART, an indie record label based in New York, and the Apples ended up with the first deal of the bunch. Meanwhile, the Olivias and NMH were busy fleshing out their first releases. Schneider recorded them on four- and eight-track and left his own indelible imprint. Both albums were promptly picked up by indies; NMH went with Merge, Flydaddy released the Olivias, and both ended up in the top 40 of the Village Voice's 1996 Pazz and Jop critic poll. Curiously, the Apples never placed.
The modest pop empire expanded to include side projects like Sidney's Secret Square and other tiny bands like Chocolate U.S.A. and Denver's Minders. This month Elephant 6 released its first full-length record by San Francisco's Beulah and will also release 7-inches by, gasp, bands that don't go pop. What's the Elephant 6 mission? "To put out good, quality music that is also its own entity. It's not like a rehash of anything; it's not retro," says Sidney. "It's something that is new, exciting, and different -- you know, forward."
The Apples are less than perfect live. It's criticism Sidney's heard before. The recordings the Apples make are too precise and too detailed to re-create onstage. And they don't try. Instead, the band constructs sparer rock arrangements. In the process, the only faithful element of the studio recordings is the wide grin on Sidney's face as she hammers on an oversized cymbal. In the past, Schneider's voice lacked both range and fullness (solved through studio trickery by repeated takes and doubling vocals).
Sidney says the band is better live now, with an added organ player and several tours -- opening for the Flaming Lips, Beck, Pavement, and Sebadoh -- behind them. Still, she insists her group is striving to play something different, in part because of that odd bill with Son Volt up in Montreal. "[The Son Volt crowd] comes in and hears what they hear on the record and then they're really excited and then they go home."
"We still have really off nights sometimes. We're not terribly consistent, but we're a lot more consistent than we used to be," she says. "Besides, it's fun sometimes to see a band lose it."
Well, sure, if you're watching a Denver band that makes the most perfect pop records around. Even in Colorado, 300 days of sunshine still means 65 days of imperfection.