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Nashville Scene Environmentally Conscious

Expansive bands, producer of the moment help push pop music in new directions

By Noel Murray

JULY 3, 2000:  Last year, when the Athens, Ga., band Elf Power released its second album A Dream in Stereo, it marked a torch-passing of sorts. Since the mid-'90s, the group had allied itself with The Elephant 6 Recording Company, a musicians' collective best known for the dreamy, raw, melodic garage psychedelia of Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel. Like the Danish movie directors who shocked the world a few years ago with the Dogme 95 manifesto, the E6-ers found instant notoriety in what started as a stab at friendly solidarity. Among obsessive rock hounds at least, any band connected to Elephant 6 had to be taken seriously.

A Dream in Stereo bore the Elephant 6 label, but it was the finer print in the liner notes that told the record's real story "Produced by Dave Fridmann." A founding member of spaced-out art-rockers Mercury Rev, Fridmann has in the last half-decade earned a reputation for producing lush, orchestrated pop records. His own band's 1998 album Deserter's Songs began his trip out of obscurity, and then last year's trifecta--A Dream in Stereo, Wheat's Hope and Adams, and the magnum opus The Soft Bulletin by longtime collaborators Flaming Lips--made him the go-to guy for bands with killer hooks in search of inventive arrangements. When Elf Power hired Fridmann as producer, it marked a shift in the agreed-upon "hot sound" for indie pop. Simply put Elephant 6 is yesterday's news, Dave Fridmann is hot copy.

The latest Fridmann production is The Great Eastern, by The Delgados, a Scottish band that has been making the Euro indie-pop scene since the early '90s, earning comparisons to isle-mates The Wedding Present (only less edgy) and cross-the-sea brethren like Pavement (only less slack). Fridmann's influence on the band can be heard on the very first song of its third LP. "The Past That Suits You Best" opens with muted, mournful horns and a creaky, tired vocal from Alun Woodward, whose voice has been distressed even further by being run through what sounds like a telephone filter. After the intro, a skittery drumbeat heralds a brighter, clearer passage, with sharper vocals and shimmering accents of flute and organ. The song is six-and-a-half minutes long, breaking halfway through for 30 seconds of clinking glasses and rhythmic clatter; there's also a lengthy symphonic coda with strings, kettle drums, and a sort of chorale.

So, besides all the sonic trickery, what exactly is Fridmann adding? In a word, drama. "The Past That Suits You Best" is about addicts trying to stay clean, and the lyrics are ambiguous as to whether the song's protagonist is trying to kick drugs, booze, or his attachment to nostalgia. The hazy and direct vocalizing, the bits of pub-like noise, and the resounding, backward-looking instrumentation that closes the piece all put a context around the words and the melody--they imply that the singer's best intentions will go for naught.

Not every song on The Great Eastern is so lavishly thought out. Simpler ballads like "Witness" and "Knowing When to Run" use strings to get the listener's attention (and for emotional appeal), but they're noteworthy simply for being pretty, well-crafted songs. But Fridmann's thoughtful arrangements are the rule, not the exception. "Accused of Stealing," a song about an attempt to salvage a strained relationship, sung by the group's other vocalist, Emma Pollock, goes through changes in tempo and tone over its five-and-three-quarter-minute running time, with pauses for reflection after key lyrics like, "Tried to convince you I'll be 'round one day / You're probably thinking, just stay away." And on the aching "Reasons for Silence," about a yearning for simplicity in culture and in communication, an ethereal flute and Pollock's own high singing voice compete to see which can disappear into the air quicker. The production style has become as vital to the meaning of the song as the words.

While Fridmann is helping a good pop band make a record for the ages, what's becoming of the DIY sensations of a few years ago? Well, the flagship band of The Elephant 6 Recording Company, Robert Schneider's Denver-based garage rock band The Apples in Stereo, has just released its third LP as well, The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone. The record opens with a fuzztone guitar, then a deafening blare of horns immediately clears away the fuzz. That first track, "Go," is a sublime statement of purpose--it's brisk, catchy as all get-out, and spiced with just about every musical instrument known to man. The song serves as a reminder to all that Elephant 6 was meant to stand for inventive homemade recording, not the murky and pretentious neo-prog that many of the collective's second-tier members have run with.

Schneider's hero is Brian Wilson, whose influence can be heard both in the Apples' sunny, beach-party melodic style, and in their willingness to bang on the kitchen sink if it'll create the proper sonic effect. And like Wilson, Schneider is able to distract from his occasionally off-putting, nasal vocals by mixing them low in arrangements that are at once loud, busy, and yet easy to discern. Schneider also appears to have spent some time listening to Jeff Lynne--not the wan Traveling Wilburys Lynne, but the excessive ELO Lynne. The way the drums and the washes of sound blast out of the speakers like a sudden storm is similar to the dense dance mixes of mid-'70s ELO. And there's even some newfound funkiness in songs like "The Bird That You Can't See" and "Stream Running Over," with their hand claps and soulful organ lines.

More important than the aural environment of the record, though, is the quality of the songs. Previous Apples in Stereo records suffered from repetitive-sounding tracks that tended to exhaust the listener after about 20 minutes. The Discovery of... has up-tempo numbers that offer white-knuckle excitement and slow tunes that are dreamily intoxicating, and within those two approaches are nuances that make a song like "I Can't Believe" appreciably different from the similarly forceful "Look Away." Whether Schneider's friends and protégés in Elephant 6 follow up on his renewed interest in crafting fun, entertaining records remains to be seen, but for now, The Apples in Stereo have made the album that everyone in that bunch should've been aiming for all along.

The distance between "the Dave Fridmann sound" and "the Elephant 6 sound" is not too great. Both styles go for as much instrumentation as possible; the chief difference may be that Fridmann aims for clarity, to accentuate meaning, while Schneider likes a little reckless energy and enjoys cool noises for their own sake. Given the transitions taking place in rock 'n' roll at the moment--toward more electronics, and toward a more polished overall package--the more forward-looking Fridmann may have the edge on the doggedly retro Schneider. But this isn't a battle, really. It's two innovators garnering favor for music that's animated and full of the consciousness that some call soul.

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