Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Contenders Series #20: The Apples in Stereo - "Hey Elevator"

I'd like to talk about words.  I'd like to talk about the evolution of meaning.  I understand if you don't necessarily want to read about those things.  If you don't, there is an excellent MP3 at the bottom of this page.  You can download it even if you don't read all the words that come in between.

As we've discussed here literally years ago (2008!), my buddy Strong hates the general meaninglessness of genre categorization in rock music.  He's a movie guy, and so, if he sees that a new movie is coming out, and he is unfamiliar with it, he can find out that said movie is an action movie, and he will have a pretty good idea of what that entails.  He can then decide if he's interested or not, and follow his curiosity as warranted.

On the internet, music doesn't work like that.  At this point, the genre description for the average band now has two prefixes, a suffix, four hyphens, and at least one made up word.  This makes it hard to sort through the hundreds of new songs that show up on Hype Machine every day.  Do I like chill-wave?  What about bliss-core?  I have no idea.  And I don't have time to listen to all of them (well, that's not true, I have plenty of time, but most people don't have time to listen to all of them).  So a lot of people never make the effort.  Finding something you'd like, personally, based on genre descriptions, is a needle in a haystack.

I think the problem starts with the decaying meanings of possibly the two most used words in genre descriptions.  Let's do "indie" first.

Look, I tell people that I listen to "indie rock."  It's easy shorthand, and most people have at least their own individual conception of what that means, and so we can progress the conversation ... but the term "indie" is now completely devoid of meaning.  I think there is now a very short list of bands that could NOT be described as "indie" (I think it's pretty much U2, Coldplay, and Nickelback).

"Indie," after all, is short for "independent."  It was, at its outset, simply a term used to describe any band without major label distribution.  It was not a comment on the sonic attributes of the band at all.  Black Flag was indie rock, true, but if Def Leppard were suddenly dropped from their label, they would have been indie rock, too.  It had nothing to do with how you sounded.

Over time, though, commonalities among those indie rock bands started to surface.  This is not to say that creativity was decreasing, just that there were threads that ran through the whole scene.  I'm not going to embarrass myself here by trying to sum them up in a paragraph ... read Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life if you want to read someone trying to describe in words what a scene sounds like.  The point is that, eventually, it became possible to sound like an indie band, and eventually the term had less and less to do with the business side of things.

The word became even further removed from its common-sense definition when some of these indie-sounding bands started to cross-over to a larger audience.  Some indie bands (like The Strokes or Modest Mouse) were even oxymoronically signed to major labels.  It became hypothetically possible to package yourself as an indie rock band, yet (1) sign with the biggest label in the world and (2) sell more records than anyone.

So what do I mean when I say that I listen to "indie rock"?  I guess my loose definition would be "music that doesn't get played on the radio" (I draw the line right around Silversun Pickups).  That said ... I don't listen to the radio all that much.  Have they started playing the Hold Steady and the New Pornographers?  If they have ... well, I'm still going to consider those bands as indie rock.  The definition is not set in stone.

I'm not going to search around for links, but I'm pretty sure the above point has been made many times before.  We music bloggers enjoy hearing ourselves talk.  What I think is even more interesting is that the same thing has happened to the word "pop."

Let's spell this one out like we did with "indie."  "Pop" is short for "popular," which is something that a lot of people like.  In the 1950s, I think it's safe to say, all the top-selling records were safely classified as pop records.  Those records, of course, had things in common, and most of those things are still popular today:  happy, uptempo, major-key songs between two and a half and three and a half minutes long remain popular, and I imagine they will for a good long time.

So, along the same lines, it became possible for a song to sound "pop" without it necessarily being popular.  You could make a pop record and not sell one copy.

There are a number of obscure pop bands out there, and almost all are fascinating.  In an industry where it's commonplace to hear that a band "sold out and made a pop record," these are bands content to make pop records even if they don't sell anything.  Some (like Fountains of Wayne, or OK Go) eventually write that one big crossover hit.  Some never do.

Two bands that remain in the "obscure" category (at least in terms of MTV/Rolling Stone large-scale celebrity) are The Apples in Stereo and Of Montreal.  Both are part of the Elephant 6 recording collective, and both make incredible pop music.  Both are also more than a little weird.

The Elephant 6 collective is a strange group of musicians, probably best known for Neutral Milk Hotel, one of the weirdest bands this side of Captain Beefheart to attain near-unanimous critical acclaim.  Of Montreal lets their other-ness show through more often than not (with album titles like Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? and song titles like "The Past is a Grotesque Animal," it's obvious they're not trying to replicate "I Want to Hold Your Hand," even if they do most often work under the same framework).  The Apples in Stereo, though ... they just make pop songs.  And that makes them seem all the more sinister to me.  What are you hiding, Apples in Stereo?

While these bands may not sell that many records, they do have incredible success licensing their songs for commercial use.  The Apples in Stereo have been featured in ads for Pepsi, Saturn, Dodge, Samsung ... and that's just page one of a Google search for "Apples in Stereo commercial."  Of Montreal, for their part, wrote the song that became the "Let's Go Outback Tonight" Outback Steakhouse jingle (in a further display of their inherent weirdness, that song was originally titled "Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games."  Catchy!).

So we have indie bands with powerful corporate backing, and pop bands whose no one knows about, whose main contributions to our culture come in anonymous 30-second background clips.  I don't know what anyone is supposed to make out of that.

I DO hope that a few people pick up Travellers in Space and Time, the new Apples in Stereo record, due out next month.  On first listen, it has at least four really good songs on it ("Hey Elevator," the song we're ostensibly talking about here, along with "Dance Floor," "Dream about the Future," and "Told You Once"), and it's really enjoyable front to back.  Get familiar now, so you can act hurt when these songs start showing up in car commercials later this year.  Everybody wins!

Download:  The Apples in Stereo - Hey Elevator

Official Site
Hype Machine
Pre-order Travellers in Space and Time

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