VIDEO: Apples in Stereo, "Energy"
Sooner or later, most of us come to need at least some support in the mental world as well as the physical, leaning on others to supply not just firm shoulders but also forgotten words. Unlike most mortals, however, some ripened artists have worked this debilitation into their deliberate personal style — even some artists who play rock and roll, a young person’s art form no matter how old it gets. Robert Schneider, the leader of Apples in Stereo (who play the Middle East downstairs this Monday), does it so well, he could turn “old” into the new “young.” On the group’s New Magnetic Wonder (Yep Roc/Simian), the 36-year-old indie-rock vet leans on everything that has ever rocked his world, from old friends to older musical forms, somehow melding it all into the most sustained set of joyous rock and roll I’ve heard this year.
It sounds like the end of a midlife crisis, one that Schneider’s pudgy, balding looks have always suggested but that his hyperactive singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer life has always belied. Schneider may have sensed some impending crisis in 2002, as he stripped back the Apples’ trademark neo-psychedelic wall-of-pop on Velocity of Sound (SpinArt), a rough, low-key CD that received mixed reviews. The following year, Schneider and Apples in Stereo drummer Hilarie Sidney divorced. In 2006, it was announced that Sidney had left the band. (She wrote and sings lead on two New Magnetic numbers.) Somewhere between these two events, the Apples also parted ways with their label of 10 years, SpinArt.
But these years were also a time of regeneration. In 2003, Schneider met actor and fellow music geek Elijah Wood, and the one-time Hobbit eventually made New Magnetic Wonder the first release on his new Simian label. There were also various side projects, like the band Ulysses, and ambitious recording sessions, some implementing “non-Pythagorean scales” that Schneider devised from his own mathematical algorithm, others working a 96-track digital recording program so hard that the studio’s computers kept crashing. On the face of it, these efforts mark a return to the Apples’ obvious namesake (I’m talking Lennon and McCartney rather than Steve Jobs) with the kind of woozy late-’60s experimentation that put Schneider on the indie-rock map as the founder of the Elephant 6 collective.
Yet this is more than a comeback. Compared with the druggy woolgathering that’s dragged down other Elephant 6 groups (Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control), New Magnetic Wonder sounds rougher, more frenetic, with Schneider pitching his high tenor slightly lower, leaving its edges as serrated as the over-amped guitars that compel a live audience in one snippet to demand they be turned down. The “non-Pythagorean” scales are kept to a few short interludes, and the hyper-production blossoms during just a few key moments — especially the climactic four-part “Beautiful Machine,” a blowout so dense yet ecstatic it made my wife remember My Bloody Valentine.
At bottom here, however, are melodies so timeless they could have been molded from a 1971 Coke commercial as easily as from Pet Sounds or ELO (a new touchstone, with Mellotron and Vocoder galore) or the Left Banke. Add the help of old pals from the aforementioned Elephant 6 groups and Schneider will make you believe midlife merely rounds a bend to bring you back home again. “You follow the skyway/You follow your right-of-way,” he sings on the hard-riffing “Skyway.” “You follow the streets and the cars/And the shadows and the stars.” If you need a hand, he’ll help you up.
APPLES IN STEREO + AQUEDUCT + LAMINATED CAT | Middle East downstairs, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge | September 17 | 617.864.EAST