Even an elephant might have trouble recalling all the records to come out this year under the auspices of the Elephant 6 Recording Company. The name refers to a clique of home-recording geeks that originated a decade ago in the college town of Ruston, Louisiana; its alumni, working in bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, and the Apples in Stereo, are responsible for some of the best indie pop of the 90s. But heavy press exposure has turned it into a sort of hip union label: Beulah’s second album, When Your Heartstrings Break (Sugar Free), was recorded in the band’s native San Francisco, and only the presence of the Apples’ Robert Schneider at the mixing desk (in Denver) accounts for the Elephant 6 logo on its back cover. Unlike some other recent E6 output, it lives up to expectations–in fact, this polished collection of symphonic pop is considerably more inspired than the Apples’ own new release. Including Beulah’s five members, 23 people play on the record, contributing brass, strings, woodwinds, harp, accordion, and tabla, yet the extra instruments are used judiciously, decorating the band’s punchy pop songs with tightly focused bursts of color. I haven’t seen Beulah play live, though, and I can’t imagine how they’ll pull this stuff off onstage, unless they invite the CSO. On the Apples’ new EP, Her Wallpaper Reverie (Spinart), seven proper songs are linked by an irritating instrumental theme; apparently the band was aiming for the sort of tapestry Olivia Tremor Control wove on its latest release, but the instrumental tracks are so superfluous that fast-forwarding through them radically improves the record. As a songwriter Schneider hasn’t progressed much since the band’s last release, the terrific Tone Soul Evolution (1997); his new tunes, like the old ones, run the gamut from shimmering Beatles knockoffs (“The Shiney Sea” and “Strawberryfire”) to bouncy Beatles knockoffs (“Ruby” and “Y2K”). But what the Apples lack in originality they make up for in charm and sincerity–and they can execute a relatively tight set, which is more than some of their colleagues can manage. They headline what’s likely to be a sold-out show at Lounge Ax, and if you haven’t been to one of those lately, prepare yourself for a truly unpleasant experience. Friday, 10 PM, Lounge Ax, 2438 N. Lincoln; 773-525-6620. Beulah also plays a free set Friday at 7 PM at Reckless Records, 3157 N. Broadway; 773-404-5080. J.R. JONES

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Tamee Ealom/Peter Ellenby.