Friday, April 23, 2010
The Apples In Stereo, "Travellers In Space and Time"
A few thoughts about the new Apples in Stereo LP, "Travellers In Space and Time."
- I have been singing the praises of disco-era Electric Light Orchestra for a long time. Conventional wisdom has the band starting to suck on "Discovery" (which snarky ex-band members refer to as "Disco Very" -- ha ha ha, assholes, you were the ones in the wide-collar suits, not us) but that's just leftover anti-disco sentiment bleeding through into a modern era that really should be beyond those prejudices, considering all the crap that's happened in the interim. Pre-"Discovery," ELO were a "headphone band," i.e. the kind of group you enjoyed whilst sitting on your beanbag chair with a bag of maui wowie and a pair of bulky 'phones, staring at the UFOs on their album covers and wishing our alien overlords would finally take over. On "Discovery" and "Time," you could either headphone 'em or dance to 'em, because they retained all the qualities (fiddly arrangements, nifty mixes, spacey ring-modulated vocals) that made 'em hi-fi geek fodder AND they inherited a highly passable four-on-the-floor. It sounds like music from the future, but a late-70s future -- imagine Gil Gerard as Buck Rogers boogie-ing in a flashy outer-space disco and you're halfway there. It's nifty stuff.
- Let's talk about pastiche music for a moment. Brief pause to define terms, from Wikipedia: A pastiche is a literary or other artistic genre that is a "hodge-podge" or an imitation. Rock and roll has always been about progress -- or at least, there's an element who would have you believe that rock music must always retain forward momentum. The music of NOW must sound like NOW and anything that sounds like THEN is pastiche and therefore less desirable or less interesting. Never mind that certain great rock songs -- "Come Together," say, or "Bohemian Rhapsody," to grab a couple randomly -- are basically pastiche. Never mind that ELO as a band basically trafficked in pastiche which at the time was called a pale Beatles imitation and now is recognized as forward thinking and entirely of its era. It's still seen as less desirable than music that sounds like TODAY (even though of course music of today is really just a series of influences filtered through modern technology or production techniques...but anyway).
I've always been quite forgiving of pastiche, obviously. To me, exploring a past or particular musical genre is just a vehicle for song delivery, and if you have the songs to back it up, how they're arranged -- if they feature instruments from a past style, like sitars or vintage synths -- is less important than whether the song is worth a great god-damn. In other words: if you have some killer hooks and great melodies, I don't care if you wrap your song in a chamber orchestra or tibetan throat singing. The key is the song.
- That all said, I have possibly underrated Apples In Stereo in the past because I didn't think they had the songs. To me, their albums sounded like exercises in genre exploration more than a collection of great songs. Sure, they occasionally produced excellent tunes -- I particularly loved "Signal In The Sky" off the Powerpuff Girls soundtrack, I played that over and over at the time -- and god knows Robert Schneider is revered as both a producer (Neutral Milk Hotel! Apples In Stereo!) and an outspoken proponent of cool music (The Smile-era Beach Boys! The Zombies!) but I've often found their stylistic imitation somewhat less good than the music they were imitating, which to me is a sign of unsuccessful pastiche.
- However, this new record? DOES NOT HAVE THAT PROBLEM. Basically, it sounds like the great lost ELO record from the "Discovery" / "Time" era, and drags in elements of other groups (Styx, Journey, the Cars, "Off The Wall"-era Michael Jackson) that I love, but manages to back that up with easily the best songs they've ever written. I mean, that's a tough one, trying to sound like unhip late-70s future-disco; you really have to have some magnificent songs to back that up, and if you're trying to create a dance groove, you also have to be totally comfortable with the elements of dragging people to the dance floor otherwise (I'm looking at you, BECK HANSON) you come off looking like a dilettante white boy, and that's bad.
But oh, the songs! There are six songs on here that should have been out-of-the-box #1 hits in some kind of alternate future where ELO's sound totally stuck and punk never happened. The best is "Hey, Elevator," which is every bit as good if not better than, say, an ELO dance classic like "Last Train To London" or "Shine A Little Love." But there's also "Dance Floor," "No One In The World," "Told You Once," "Nobody But You," and the left-field ballad hit "Wings Away," each one completely amazing, with unimpeachable melodies, fantastic hooks, totally plausible dance beats, and every detail in place from the vocoder backing vocals to the synth blips and bleeps. They're perfect. That's the only word for 'em. Successful pastiche? Yeah, when you actually manage to surpass the albums you're aping, I'd say that's successful.
Furthermore: even the filler tracks are great. "Dignified Dignitary" takes the riff from "Do Ya" and mutates it into a mod barnstormer. The bouncy "It's Alright" takes bits from sunshine pop and combines them with dancefloor breakdowns. And the brief, a capella "Strange Solar System" features Dalek harmonies singing one of the most sublime melodies I've yet heard this year. It's seriously fantastic.
- That all said, this album is so fucking fantastic it's making me think I might have underrated the Apples In Stereo's past work. I think I may have unfairly dismissed them as the Neutral Milk Hotel / Olivia Tremor Control's twee little brothers -- in fact, I know I did. And while I realize there isn't a precedence for this kind of disco/pop hybrid in their back catalog (it's far more 60s psych-pop based, if you don't know 'em), I wonder if I missed out on some melodies and hooks while pooh-poohing them. Once I'm done with this album, I'm gonna go back and re-listen and re-evaluate.
- Meantime, if you have any fondness for this type of music, or if you need some shit to get a party started, you need to check out this album pronto. It's the first album this year I can 100% wholeheartedly recommend.