Between last week's sold-out Guided By Voices show at Manhattan's Bowery Ballroom and Saturday's sold-out Beulah/Apples in Stereo show at Maxwell's in Hoboken, N.J., the New York metropolitan area is currently experiencing its biggest pop invasion since ... since ... well, since reunited 1970s power-popsters the Rubinoos played here two weeks ago. But while the latter drew an over-30 set trying to relive its youth, Saturday's show attracted an under-30 crowd trying to survive its youth. What's more, most of the youngsters are indie rock-loving hipsters who wouldn't touch a 1970s power pop band with a 10-foot skinny tie (too cute, too retro and, by today's standards, too slick). Perhaps the greatest achievement of Saturday's acts and their contemporaries is that they've accomplished what many thought impossible (and what major labels still think is impossible); they've made catchy, carefully crafted harmony-laden three-minute tunes (semi)popular again.
Some critics claim that the second album by San Francisco's Beulah, the lavishly arranged "When Your Heartstrings Break" (Sugar Free), is on the same level as the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" or the Zombies' "Odessey and Oracle." These are the same people who said that the Gallagher brothers were the rightful heirs to Lennon and McCartney. The album actually sounds like nothing so much as the Velvet Underground's "Loaded." Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Not since Edwyn Collins played Maxwell's three years ago has the stage seen such a serious auteur as Beulah singer/guitarist Miles Kurosky. On Saturday, he was all study, watching his bandmates and glancing down at his own guitar. Although his concentration canceled out some of the abandon in his songs, it was somewhat excusable, given the band's tight and focused performance. The effort wasn't lost on the audience, which treated Beulah more like a headliner than an opening act. (The band belongs to Elephant 6, the loose collective of bands that includes the Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel and the Olivia Tremor Control, which gives them a little more recognition than most relatively new groups enjoy.) While most of Beulah's songs sound pretty samey, they have a killer tune that goes way beyond the rest, which they save for last. The wonderfully titled "If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart" is an extended, ultra-catchy number (with a great trumpet solo) that could have come from David Bowie's "Hunky Dory."
I'm scribbling in my notebook when the 15-year-old girl next to me asks what kind of review will I write. "Mixed," I say. Disappointed, she shrugs: "I just think they're the perfect pop band." I feel jaded. Maybe, for this girl half my age, they are the perfect pop band. I guess the Knack were right. The little girls do understand.
If Kurosky seems a bit cold, the Apples in Stereo err on the side of niceness. Guitarist and front man Robert Schneider is the Stuart Smalley of rock 'n' roll, revealing all his joys and insecurities through both his music and his funny, self-effacing banter. The Apples aren't terribly tight tonight -- they sound much better on their records. Fortunately, most of their songs don't require anything more complicated than a bar chord or two -- and that's the beauty of what they do. Like the Ramones before them and, even more so, like the 1910 Fruitgum Co. before them, the Apples in Stereo have learned how to distill pop to its most basic elements.
What puts the Apples closer to the 1910 Fruitgum Co., the Buddah Records studio group, is the way they put cheesy organ riffs and sweet harmonies on an equal level with chunky guitars. They also display a refreshing lack of irony not normally found in modern purveyors of '60s-style pop.
There's no question that the audience appreciates the opportunity to enjoy sweet tunes without shame. As the Apples perform tunes like "Ruby," from their latest release, "Her Wallpaper Reverie" (spinART), the pogo-ing crowd proves that bubblegum remains as gloriously irrelevant as it was 30 years ago. Better still, instead of being manufactured primarily by cynical hacks, it's now being done by people who truly believe in it. As Smalley would say, the Apples in Stereo really are good enough and smart enough. And, gosh darn it, people like them.