With the benefit of hindsight, it appears that 1994-95 augured yet another British Invasion of the American musical landscape. Curiously, this time around, the Enemy is Us, as a handful of maddeningly talented bands from our own shores resurrect the spirit of old school Britpop and turn it into contemporary art. Forget the Oasis/Blur dialectic, the best Beatles-influenced music made today hails from the urban backwaters of North America -- unlikely locales like Dayton, Ohio, Vancouver, B.C., New Haven and Hartford, Conn., Athens, Ga., and Denver, Colo. The bands, among others, are belated "discovery" Guided By Voices, Zumpano, Holiday, Lilys, the Olivia Tremor Control and Denver's own Apples in Stereo.
The Apples are the brainchild of Robert Schneider, a four-track whiz kid with a line in homebrew pop that draws on the Beatles, Kinks, Byrds and most prominently, "Pet Sounds"/"Smile"-era Beach Boys. As a precocious young lad in Louisiana, Schneider made tapes of his pop nuggets for his similarly talented friends, who in turn shared their own compositions with him. Several years later, this friendly neighborhood songwriting competition would emerge as the Elephant 6 Recording Co., consisting of Robert's Apples, the Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel. All three bands released stunning debuts within a two-year period, garnering ebullient notices from the indie music press. While the Olivias' "Dusk at Cubist Castle" was the most ambitious effort, the Apples' "Fun Trick Noisemaker" was clearly the best, an audacious blast of sunshine pop filtered through a swirling, off-kilter sonic sensibility and the charming limitations of eight-track recording. With "Tone Soul Evolution," the Apples' sophomore slab, Schneider returns with higher fidelity and sharper focus, tightening and often improving on the somewhat diffuse brilliance of his debut.
Schneider paints in primary colors -- a foolproof A7-to-C hook here, a tiny choir of Beach Boys "ba-ba-bas" there -- but like Piet Mondrian (whose Monopoly-board grids are appropriated on the cover of "Tone Soul Evolution"), he combines these familiar shades in such a way they transcend their kindergarten qualities. He doesn't sing about anything in particular, but who cares? With melodies this memorable, lyrics are pure frosting. Deep, meaningful verses would only dampen the irrepressible joy of "Seems So," "Shine a Light," "You Said That Last Night" and "Try to Remember." I doubt anybody was griping about banal sentiments when they first heard "Please Please Me," "She's Not There" or "God Only Knows." Schneider's voice -- a reedy, imperfect instrument -- gets over on charm and enthusiasm alone. He sighs his gorgeous melodies over "Tone's" tracks without pretense or affectation. He sounds like what he is -- a gifted boy swooning to the pure pop bliss-out happening inside his head.
On "Tin Pan Alley," Schneider mourns the loss of the professional pop-song craftsman by identifying with him, claiming that "If they'd listen to me whistling/They would whistle along/Then I'd be making a living/Just like those old Tin Pan Alley musicians." Laced with enough instantly catchy hooks to cause any professional tunesmith to consider unemployment, "Tone Soul Evolution" makes good on Schneider's humble boast, and if there were any justice in the music industry, he would be making more than a living.