What has The Apples in Stereo frontman Robert Schneider been up to in the five years since the band’s last album? Quite a bit, actually – two side-projects, some schmoozing with Elijah Wood and others at Austin’s SXSW music festival, a solo performance on “The Colbert Report.” Oh, and creating his own music scale called the “Non-Pythagorean Music Scale” – and it’s just as esoteric as it sounds. According to Schneider, it has something to do with creating new tones with varying frequencies that “add according to a different algebra from the traditional, rational pitches. Music theory in this scale has not yet been worked out.” Whatever.

Unlike the group’s last album, Velocity of Sound, which had a personal, concert-ready feel, New Magnetic Wonder is highly polished. Schneider’s production prowess, clear in his work with Neutral Milk Hotel, has never been cleaner: multiple layers and a heavy emphasis on percussion and cowbells that would make even Brian Wilson happy. The album is also more grandiose than the band’s previous work, featuring 14 “true” songs and 12 interludes that Schneider calls “link tracks.” Unlike the other link tracks Schneider placed in prior recordings, these sound vital to the overall composition of the album. New Magnetic Wonder crafts a grand concoction featuring ELO-style vocals, Neutral Milk Hotel-esque production and a new edginess from the band.

Although “Apples in Stereo” might be better known for comparisons to the Beatles, the album’s first four tracks distance them from those stereotypes, and instead pick up new ones that put them side by side with ELO. The opener “Can You Feel It?” puts the new music scale to use right off the bat, but it mostly sounds like a cheap doorbell tone. Then the ELO-trademarked computerized vocals take hold when the voice commands the listener to “Turn up the stereo” as the band stars to rock out with high-energy wails and a call-and-response section backed by computer-generated horns and a prominent cowbell thump.

While “Skyway” exhibits more of the band’s cowbell/hard-hitting guitar-hook fetish, the album’s first single “Energy” borders on completely hokey Kidz Bop fair with schlocky lyrics (“And the world is made of energy / And the world is electricity”) until its salvaged by gritty guitar-slam segues and, you guessed it, more cowbell. It sounds awfully phony – and it is, but the song has so vocal ability behind it and a powerful, quasi-drug-trip feel that it turns out to be one of the best on the album.

It’s these moments of hard-hitting, New Pornographers-rock that really distinguishes this Apples effort from their past. “Sunndal Song” and “Sunday Song” thrust Hilarie Sidney’s vocals to the fore, and just like with the New Pornographers and Neko Case, it’s a shame Sidney spends so little time at the front of the band. Still, her consistent, restrained voice adds a rare glimpse into the real dynamic of the group.

Though the music scale should be a big deal, it doesn’t make much difference in the sound. Take “Beautiful Machine Parts 1-4.” Allegedly, the eight-minute concerto-style piece brought the entire work to a halt – yet it simultaneously sounds crisp and scattershot. The track floats through high-tempo guitar strumming and atmospheric wails until it’s interrupted by a Neutral Milk Hotel-like scene transition into a lightly strummed ballad – then a loud, confusing guitar mish-mash – before fading into a soothing concerto masterpiece.

Pop music doesn’t get much better than this – new music scale or not. All the outside hype with Elijah Wood and Comedy Central would hint at a band trying to nudge their way into the mainstream, but as “Can You Feel It?” so eloquently states, “Turn off the bullshit on the FM radio.” So maybe not. Either way, New Magnetic Wonder is a peppy jaunt into what good pop music can sound like.

Apples in Stereo
New Magnetic Wonder

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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