Review Summary: The Apples start to go bad.
It might surprise some that Robert Schneider’s Apples in Stereo project is the only remaining survivor of that first wave of Elephant 6 collective bands, which reads like a who’s-who of groundbreaking indie pop – the Apples, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Olivia Tremor Control. All the critical acclaim and classic status has long been lavished on the latter two, but Schneider is the only one of them still trucking along in his original guise, creating increasingly complicated space-age power-pop while Jeff Mangum languished in self-imposed obscurity and the Olivia Tremor Control struggled to recapture their past magic. Detractors would say it’s because Schneider has long been the most single-minded of those original auteurs, mastering the Elephant 6 aesthetic of experimental pop and refining it to a sugary sharp edge but not going much further. But 2007’s New Magnetic Wonder
proved that a sound that had long gone stale on their previous releases could be retooled and reignited in a new direction, taking their predominantly guitar-fueled pop and mixing in plenty of vocoder and ELO-influenced futurism. Travellers in Space and Time
continues on that same tick, but falls prey to the same problem that undermined Schneider’s early 2000s releases: the feeling that we’ve all been here before.
Despite its length, New Magnetic Wonder
was a surprisingly focused effort, bloating its way to twenty-plus tracks due to numerous minute-or-shorter interludes that enhanced the album’s dreamy vibe. Travellers in Space and Time
, for all its similar length, packs far more filler than its predecessor, a fact not aided by the eerie similarity between newer and older songs. “Dream About The Future” is the same kind of bouncy, piano-synth-vocoder combo that New Magnetic Wonder
perfected, with an irresistible jackhammer of a hook and Schneider’s perpetually boyish vocals. And being the first proper song on the record, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. But then comes “Hey Elevator,” and then “Dance Floor,” and then “C.P.U.”, and on and on, and before long one is promptly overloaded by Schneider’s stated vision of “early-seventies R&B played by a UFO.” This wouldn’t be a bad thing, but too much of Travellers in Space and Time
sounds like a retread, sounds that are enjoyable on their own but over the course of this 16-track album end up being beat to death, with too many forgettable hooks and overused electronics.
As much as Travellers
drags in the middle after the novelty of hearing new Apples in Stereo has worn off, it does redeem itself near the end, more on the basis of Schneider hitting on some of the best melodies of his recent career than on any variance in sound. “Told You Once” is Schneider at his Beach Boys-via-Casio best, and “Floating in Space” stands out more for what it doesn’t do than for what it is – for once, the Apples seem to realize that less is better. It’s proven again and again as Travellers
winds down that Schneider does best when he keeps it simple, focusing on his obvious melodic gift and making songs that focus on the heart of everything, rather than cluttering things up with numerous instruments, unnecessary vocoder, or sounds already recycled. It’s what makes one wish there were more songs like the lyrically simple, affirming love letter “Nobody But You” or the whimsical trip of “Wings Away,” songs that call to mind their late ‘90s peak. Fans of the Apples will no doubt fall in love with the band again after hearing Travellers
, as the things that make them a great power-pop band are all there. But they have the potential to be simply put a great band regardless of genre, one that can, at its heights, stand right up there with Mangum and Hart. It’s just beyond reach here, undermined again by Schneider’s habit of falling into a rut, but perhaps all they need is another shift in sound to recapture that old magic.