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Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2007 01:55 am

The nerdiest of the indie nerds

The sound money is on Robert Schneider of the Apples in Stereo

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The Apples in Stereo New Magnetic Wonder (Yep Roc)
Untitled Document Who’s the biggest nerd in indie rock? One thing’s for sure: The competition has never been more cutthroat. Could it be the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, the dorkling king of musical-theater buffs? Or maybe it’s a two-way tie between those old standbys They Might Be Giants, they of the dorm-ripened drollery and liberal use of accordion (an instrument that has never, not once, gotten anyone laid, anywhere in the known universe). For sheer longevity and output, why not go with Sparks, über-nerds for going on 40 years now?
You could make a case for any of the aforementioned candidates, along with countless other loser-winners in the dorkapalooza formerly known as “college rock,” but the smart money is on Robert Schneider, vocoder enthusiast, Elephant 6 Collective co-founder, and recent inventor of something he calls a “Non-Pythagorean Scale.” The frontman and principal songwriter of the Apples in Stereo, Schneider is a chubby, balding, bespectacled Jeff Lynne devotee with an inordinate fondness for Mellotrons and vocoders and many, many overdubs. In fact, while making New Magnetic Wonder, the Apples’ fifth album, he reportedly crashed the studio computer several times by using 96 audio tracks at once. Quite possibly he’s just a sandbox away from indenturing himself to Dr. Eugene Landry, but, in the meantime, Schneider is simply the nerdiest nerd in the room.
That’s just fine, too, because he wears his pocket protector proudly. Wonder is a 53-minute thrill ride, a prog-pop sugar rush that combines state-of-the-art studio wizardry, old-fashioned hook-mongering, and that certain je nerd sais quoi that fans have come to expect since the band’s lo-fi beginnings. Wonder is the Apples’ first album in five years, and, over the 12 months that it took to record (in five cities, no less), the group lost its longtime drummer and second vocalist, Hilarie Sidney, who is also, coincidentally or not, Schneider’s ex-wife. Sidney left on good terms, however: In addition to playing drums, she wrote and sings lead on two of the album’s 14 songs (there are actually 24, but 12 of them are fragmentary segues). Both of her contributions are quite pleasant, in a wispy, cotton-candy kind of way, but mostly they serve to remind us that it’s Schneider’s show, as well it should be. After spending the last few years putzing around in so-so side projects, he seems rejuvenated and ready to rock.
The catchiness quotient is more than covered, unsurprisingly, along with the standard dosages of ELO fetishism. Awash in adrenalized synths and vocoder-heavy backing vocals, “Same Old Drag” sounds like a lost Lynne outtake; “Can You Feel It” boasts helium harmonies, throwback cowbells, fizzy guitars, and a chorus that commands us to “turn up the stereo, oh-ho-whoa!” The Apples are in even better form on the wistful, chiming “Play Tough”; the beaming, Beatlesque “Sun Is Out”; and the grand and viscous psych-pop juggernaut “Open Eyes.” The real standout, though, is the two-track, four-part suite “Beautiful Machine,” a trippy, buzzy, headphones-mandated opus that’s both perfectly insane and perfectly irresistible. It’s the most ambitious Schneider composition yet and, to my ears anyway, the most beautiful by far. According to the press release, it “not only threatened Schneider’s tenuous sanity but it also threatened the album’s very completion.” Insanity, of course, is the lingua franca of production visionaries (see Brian Wilson, Ike Turner, and Phil Spector) and pretty much a cliché at this point, but I’ll take Schneider and his publicist at their word. In my experience, people who invent new musical scales (read: nerds) are seldom entirely sane, and our world’s a better place for them.

Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.
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