Aural Pleasure 

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New Magnetic Wonder
The Apples in Stereo
(Simian Records)
If he’d been conceived a generation earlier, Robert Schneider might have built a lucrative career writing commercial jingles and Saturday-morning cartoon themes. But Schneider grew up in an era when the bubblegum virtues of the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” were no longer in the pop mainstream, so he attached himself to the underground, Athens, Georgia music laboratory known as Elephant 6.

Schneider’s band, the Apples in Stereo, has always been the most accessible member of the Elephant 6 collective, and if the group has a serious weakness, it’s that Schneider’s proud-to-be-wimpy vocals can make his carefully crafted ear candy too sugary to be consumed in large doses.

New Magnetic Wonder,  the band’s first album in five years (and first for Apples lover Elijah Wood’s label, Simian Records), finds Schneider characteristically indulging his appetite for sonic density, with producer Bryce Goggin reportedly weathering repeated computer crashes as Schneider piled as many as 96 tracks on individual songs.

The Apples are at their best when they surrender to the lowbrow thrill of making inescapable, sing-along jingles, as on the solar-powered “Energy” and the mid-tempo droner, “Radiation.” Schneider’s hard-assed warnings on “Play Tough” (“you better play tough, my love/ when you play me for a fool”) are laughable coming from a man with half the menace of Fred Rogers, but the tune itself — and Schneider’s falsetto leap on the chorus — suggests a great lost Chris Stamey single from the late ’70s.

Schneider’s insistence on bulking up this collection with a dozen vocoder and mellotron interludes makes New Magnetic Wonder a tougher slog than a pleasure-pop album should be, but he still gives every indication that he can crank out those seamless three-minute wonders whenever he feels like it, which is most of the time.           

— Gilbert Garcia

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Writer’s Block
Peter Bjorn and John
(Almost Gold)

The clichés about Scandinavian cleanliness and order apply to much of the music emanating from northern Europe, and Writer’s Block, Peter Bjorn and John’s third album, won’t dispel those perceptions.

Like many young Nordic musicians, these Swedes romanticize several decades of Anglo-American rock and pop. The result is music that’s both too reverent and charmingly askew, as overly familiar traits get lost in translation.

No matter your stance on said Scando tics, there’s no denying that Writer’s Block is much better than 2005’s Falling Out, which was psych-pop of utter conventionality and politesse. Plus, it lacked anything as sweetly contagious as the uplifting “Young Folks.” A fetching duet between languid ex-Concretes singer Victoria Bergsman and Peter, the song blithely cruises on pell-mell bongos, a Partridge Family bass line (allegedly), a Monkees breakbeat and some cheerful whistling. It achieves the rare feat of making one corner of your mouth curve upward and the other downward.

Other highlights include “Let’s Call It Off,” a pastiche of reverb-y ’80s indie rock influenced by peppy ’60s pop that recalls Detroit’s Outrageous Cherry, and the pulse-quickening, blue-toned pop of “Chills.” With their earnest melodic charms and winningly precise rhythms, PB&J should, uh, clean up among the indie-pop cognoscenti.

— Dave Segal

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Music and Lyrics
(Warner Bros.)

The soundtrack to Warner Bros. romantic comedy Music and Lyrics, starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, manages to be everything that the movie is not: an entertaining tribute to the power of pop.

With Grant playing a washed-up ’80s pop star, formerly with a Wham!-like duo called Pop!, Music and Lyrics lovingly celebrates the era by eschewing parody and embracing nuance through new songs (sung by Grant) that might have actually been recorded 20 years ago. “Pop! Goes My Heart” could easily be mistaken for an early MTV relic and nails every cue, from the catchy new-wave keyboards, melodramatic harmonies, and sincerely performed bad lyrics. Another Pop! Standard, “Meaningless Kiss,” ups the lyrical-atrocity ante with lines like: “It’s easier said than done when two hearts beat as one/And three hearts are one too many,” while ballad “Dance with Me Tonight” is just silly-bad in the best possible way.

But it’s the new ballad Grant and Barrymore’s characters write for a teen pop-tart that proves most unforgettable. Penned by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, one of three songs here he’s responsible for, “Way Back into Love” is a frothy, earnest duet with a country amble that would have been performed by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton 25 years ago. One listen and it won’t leave your head.

Haley Bennett, who plays the pop-tart (an obvious Britney Spears clone), scores with satires of contemporary pop, such as the “Toxic”-esque “Buddha’s Delight”: “So forget about your past life, because this could be your last life/We could reach nirvana.” Pop overindulgence and the desecration of musical traditions — not to mention religions — has never been so much fun. The fact that it’s followed up by “Entering Bootytown,” a track that outright tells young girls, “Your booty is the way into his heart” — with a straight face, too — thus seems wholly appropriate.

— Cole Haddon




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