The Apples
Fun Trick Noisemaker

Last year, Apples frontman Robert Schneider told Westword he wanted to write "uplifting" songs that had a "transcendent quality" about them. Judging from Fun Trick Noisemaker, the act's spinART debut, Schneider and the rest of the Apples (drummer Hilarie Sidney, guitarist John Hill and bassists Jeff Mangum and Jim McIntyre) have achieved Schneider's goal, and then some. Sweet, sticky and dripping with indie-rock smarts, these idiomatic pop delights wrap themselves around your libido like so much cosmic cotton candy; likewise, their lo-fi hooks, harmonies and melodies dance around in your noggin for days. There's no denying the Apples' fondness for classic pop: "High Tide," "Lucky Charm" and "Love You Alice/D," in particular, suggest that the Denver-based combo has been spending a substantial amount of time with its Beatles and Beach Boys albums. Yet no matter how obvious these influences, the results are always pure Apples: Noisemaker's surreal edge suggests Revolver as performed by the residents of Liddsville. Clearly, this snappy mixture of time-tested pop rock and quirky psychedelia rates as some of the best and brightest experimental bubblegum to come down the pike since the Moles' Instinct hit these shores last year. Uplifting? Sure. Transcendent? Let your conscious be your guide.--Brad Jones

Chris Isaak
Forever Blue

Those of you who already own a Chris Isaak album already have this one. Or a reasonable facsimile.--Michael Roberts

Gino Vannelli
Yonder Tree
(Verve Forecast)

This is unquestionably one of the most sickening recordings I've ever heard--and I've heard a lot of sickening recordings. Even more depressing, the usually tasteful folks at Verve are the people heavily hyping the album. Either important executives at the company believe Yonder Tree is a really fine piece of work, or they want desperately to convince us that it is. The latter's more likely: Vannelli has a good commercial track record thanks to his dabblings in mindless pop tunes, symphonic collaborations and new-agey sounds. Now, after allegedly spending the past twelve years trying to "find himself," he's discovered jazz. To that end, he's gathered together a group of worthy instrumentalists who work hard to create pleasant backgrounds. The goal seems to be to establish Vanelli as a smooth songbird in the mold of, say, Mel Torme or Bobby Short, but these efforts are sabotaged by the star of the show. The disc is filled with Vanelli originals crammed with incredibly stupid I'm-spiritually-aware-but-still-kind-of-hip lyrics. For example, "Jehovah and All That Jazz" includes the lines, "For all the talent that he has/ Jehovah don't play jazz/Like the devil do," and this reference to Billie Holiday: "Billie, Billie, knock me silly." If Lady Day wasn't already dead, that rhyme might have killed her.--Linda Gruno

Stevie Wonder
Conversation Peace

Stevie Wonder was a godsend for anyone who listened to the radio during the Seventies. At a time when many of the best music-makers of the Sixties were either running out of steam or stretched out in wooden boxes, he found a way to make hits that were both instantly accessible and bracingly complex. In addition, his deeply felt humanism and dedication to the advancement of social causes was the ideal antidote to a decade seemingly dominated by navel-gazing. Sure, some of his stuff was soupy--even those of us who loved him regretted "You Are the Sunshine of My Life"--but the vast majority of his work during this period was as funky as it was emotionally resonant. That's why any album collection that doesn't include Talking Book, Music of My Mind, Innervisions, Fulfillingness' First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life is far from complete. Being without Conversation Peace, however, is hardly a tragedy. Clearly, Wonder tried hard on this disc; the music is the densest and most ambitious that he's released in a decade. Moreover, a few of the songs stand out--"Tomorrow Robins Will Sing," for instance, is a breezy pop-reggae number in which Wonder engages in playful patois against a wall of female backing vocals, while "Sensuous Whisper" features a dancing, skittering beat that fits its title well. Too often, though, the tunes settle for quiet-storm smoothness that's thoroughly professional but lacks the fire Wonder once conjured up so effortlessly. And while activism remains a part of his recipe, "Take the Time Out" (ruined by its use in a series of American Express commercials) and "My Love Is With You" (a plea to ban handguns) can't match the power of "Living for the City" and the like. Peace is perfectly listenable, even pleasant, but it's far from glorious. And glorious is what Wonder can be.--Roberts


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