FOR BRAIN-CELL-overloaded teen nerd-boys sitting alone in their bedrooms, grown-up nerdboy Brian Wilson was always a more realistic role model than, say, Steven Tyler. With Wilson, it wasn’t about armadillo-stuffing, lighter-flicking guitar wankery, and barely even about words. Instead, he turned generations of outcasts onto the possibilities of sound. And when those nerdboys bought four-tracks and guitars — the ’90s low-fi indie-pop movement — they tweaked and twisted and cajoled their instruments to create a musical safe-house far away from unforgiving suburban cock-rock monsters.
Denver’s Apples in Stereo (part of the Elephant 6 label’s indie-pop mafia, along with Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel) have painstakingly studied the Beached Boy’s “pocket symphony” approach to songcraft. Their first record, 1995’s Fun Trick Noisemaker, recorded on eight-track at two home studios, was crammed with bandleader Robert Schneider’s collages of old-fashioned pop hooks, kitchen-sink arrangements, and too-much-Star Trek-as-a-kid lyrics. On Tone Soul Evolution, the Apples graduate to a real recording studio, where Schneider’s themes of aliens, dreams, and death are crisply accompanied by an Up With People vibe reminiscent of the Cowsills.
While the Apples appropriate Wilson’s sugar-coated techniques, London’s the High Llamas are so obsessed with Smile-era Beach Boys that they actually want to be Wilson sidekick Van Dyke Parks. On the epic Hawaii, Sean O’Hagan and crew nod to Smile‘s ‘Cabinessence’ (thanks to an ever-present banjo), but the album’s real reference point is Parks’s 1968 foray into Joycean mad science, Song Cycle (even O’Hagan’s timid warble sounds like Parks’s). At least O’Hagan is over his Donald Fagen fixation — 1994’s Gideon Gaye was the best album Steely Dan never made.
Hawaii‘s nearly two hours of immaculate, mood-bending, easy-listening pop alternately mesmerizes and makes your skin crawl. Strings, brass, guitars, harmonium, and synth bleeps come and go, loopily arranged with what one hopes is a wink. Supposedly a “concept” record, the album’s Hawaiian theme is merely an excuse for O’Hagan’s orchestral maneuvers and precious melodies — folky, tropical, eccentric — which swirl and whirl like a psychedelic summit of Lawrence Welk and Don Ho. O’Hagan gracefully shifts the mood from buoyant to melancholy at the drop of a tuba or the flourish of a violin. There’s Vince Guaraldi-like piano tinkling on ‘Hot Revivalist’, the Nilsson-esque bounce of ‘Doo-Wop Property’, and the instrumental ‘Cuckoo Casino’, which sounds like a helicopter landing on a string section. And so it goes, until you’re not sure if Hawaii‘s the greatest record you’ve ever heard, or if you’ve just spent too much time at the dentist’s office. Pass the nitrous, please.
© Erik Himmelsbach, Spin, December 1997