The preface to this week's column was necessitated by a recent letter e-mailed to me not once, but several times by pissed-off reader John La Briola. In it, he asked, "Just how far do the Apples in Stereo have their fist up your butt? It's not enough to force-feed us weekly silver-lined updates about every fly they catch, but now you raise the hype to new, ridiculous levels by mentioning them alongside George Martin ["In His Life," March 4]. Cut the crap! You sound more and more like their rich, apologist mother, for fuck's sake. Or a 3.2 Don King pushing another mediocre white hope from the welter-weight class to heavy-belt contender. Give it a goddamn rest, would you? Surprise me. Write about JonBenet or those stupid polar bears. Write about Carrot Top being the next Buster Keaton. Write about Gary Coleman or Blinky the Clown. Anything. Just shut up about your darling little Apples for a while. Quit embarrassing us. Quit nauseating us. I dare you."
The timing of this well-written and amusing, if highly suspect, assault is ironic, because as it turns out, some breaking news has put me in the position of needing to write about the Apples this week. Before doing so, however, allow me to offer a little context. First of all, the Apples have been given the full Westword profile treatment only once--and that was almost five years ago, in an article penned by contributor Brad Jones ("Harvest Time," July 20, 1994). In addition, my last column about the group appeared nearly fifteen months back (Feedback, January 1, 1998) and concerned the act's new distribution deal with a major label, Sire Records--something so rare in this market that its newsworthiness is impossible to dispute. Since then, mentions of the Apples have almost all been in the context of other groups associated with them: Elf Power, Neutral Milk Hotel and the Minders are the most prominent examples. In addition, the Apples get much more ink nationally than they do in their own hometown. They are unquestionably the most critically acclaimed current act from Denver, yet they almost never appear in the daily newspapers, where local music coverage pretty much consists of annual mentions that Firefall is playing the People's Fair.
So please accept my apology in advance, Mr. La Briola--because I'm not going to stop embarrassing you, and I won't refrain from nauseating you, either. If I think something involving the Apples will be of interest to the majority of our readers, I'm going to write about it. But that doesn't mean I don't still love you. Will you be my valentine?
Oh, yeah--the Apples. As noted above, the band inked a pact with Sire Records in late 1997. But Sire's marketing of Tone Soul Evolution, issued several months earlier by a prominent indie, spinART, didn't turn the disc into a bestseller. In fact, group leader Robert Schneider points out that the Apples' previous spinART CD, Funtricknoisemaker, moved nearly as many units as did Tone with no major-label support at all. So when Sire offered to either extend the distribution agreement to the band's next long-player or sign it outright, Schneider says, "we turned them down."
Such a move isn't unprecedented: Boulder's Sally Taylor, profiled last week in an article called "Taylor Made," has declined a whole series of lucrative proposals waved at her by industry kingpins. But unlike Taylor, who has the kind of monetary support that comes with being the spawn of James Taylor and Carly Simon, the various Apples are living hand to mouth. "We're broke and struggling," Schneider admits. "But the thing is, if we'd gone with Sire, we would have continued to be broke and struggling. I don't want people to think it was all about money, but that was definitely part of it. Sire was willing to give us the creative control we wanted, but they weren't willing to do any more for us financially, distribution-wise or promotion-wise than spinART could. And with Sire, there was just so much more red tape and bureaucracy that we figured we were better off where we were. So we told them no."
Shortly thereafter, the Apples contracted with spinART for a new album, and they plan to license numerous other efforts with the firm through Elephant 6, Schneider's own imprint. He describes the first of these releases--Wallpaper Reverie, an Apples mini-LP set to arrive in stores this May--as "a really psychedelic excursion" that will differ substantially from the group's next full-length, which is being assembled now at its recording space, Pet Sounds. This homemade approach was chosen in part because of Schneider's creeping dissatisfaction with Tone, the first Apples effort to be produced in a professional studio (Hartford, Connecticut's Studio .45). "It just didn't have the edge that we have live," he says. "Live, we're not all that polished and fluffy; we rock more. But that got lost in the mix. The problem was that I was collaborating with another engineer. Collaboration doesn't have to water things down, but this time it did. I think I just wasn't confident enough. But since then, I've made a couple of records where I've really learned a lot, and they've shown me that maybe we're better off if I just do it myself."
The latest by Neutral Milk Hotel--In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which wound up on scores of national best-ten lists last year--certainly supports this argument, as do two new CDs by Elephant 6 family members: When Your Heartstrings Break, by San Francisco's Beulah, and Black Foliage: Animation Music, by Athens, Georgia-based Olivia Tremor Control. The former, put out by Sugar Free Records, arguably sounds a bit too much like the Apples for its own good (Schneider mixed the platter), but it's overflowing with enjoyably weird/catchy tunes, including "Score From Augusta" and the stately, charming "If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart." Black Foliage, on Flydaddy, is considerably more bizarre. Songs such as "A Familiar Noise Called 'Train Director'" and "Grass Canons" start out with pop melodies that soon explode in crazed bursts of psychedelia, free jazz and Lord knows what else. Schneider, who shaped many of the songs through remixing, is careful to give credit for Foliage where credit is due. "I did some work on the tracks, because the Olivias had been working on them for two years and they weren't happy with the way they were sounding," he says. "But they did a lot of the really great, fucked-up stuff when they got back to Athens."
Right now Schneider is too busy to farm out his talents: He's up to his ears in Apples. And if he has any regrets about spurning Sire, he's not letting on. "We're happy with our life," he says. "We're not rich, but we're doing what we want to do. And that's the main thing."
Cellist Hannah Alkire, among the busiest and best-liked musicians in the area, has been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. To help her fight this ailment, Wendy Woo, Sherri Jackson and members of Big Head Todd and the Monsters, among many other Colorado performers, are staging a benefit for her on Wednesday, March 24, at the Fox Theatre. (Alkire is hoping to play as well, since the show is the day before her regular chemotherapy treatments.) Donations will be gratefully accepted.
Some performances by acts not specifically attacked by John La Briola. On Thursday, March 18, Armchair Martian invades the Bluebird Theater, and Sun Circus, featuring Maurice Avatar, shines for the first of three nights at Dick's Last Resort. On Friday, March 19, Neal & Leandra pair up at the Swallow Hill Music Hall; Pete Wernick's Live Five begins a two-night run at Niwot's Left Hand Grange Hall; Blind Harvest hosts a CD-release party at Cricket on the Hill; Schleigho does the same at the Boulder Theater; and Westword contributing writer Marty Jones brings his Pork Boilin' Po' Boys to the Lodo Music Hall, with the Floodplain Gang. On Saturday, March 20, Citizen King looks for its lost sled at the Ogden Theatre, and Suburbia's Finest introduces a new disc at the Aztlan Theatre in the company of Five Iron Frenzy and MU330. And on Sunday, March 22, Charlie Musselwhite blows harp at a Boulder Theater taping of E-Town that also features the gifted Kelly Willis, whose new album is called What I Deserve. As for what I deserve, I know one person I'm not going to ask.
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.