THE APPLES IN STEREO: TRAVELLERS IN SPACE AND TIME (2010)
1) The Code; 2) Dream About The Future; 3) Hey Elevator; 4) Strange Solar System; 5) Dance Floor; 6) C.P.U.; 7) No One In The World; 8) Dignified Dignitary; 9) No Vacation; 10) Told You Once; 11) It's All Right; 12) Next Year At About The Same Time; 13) Floating In Space; 14) Nobody But You; 15) Wings Away; 16) Time Pilot.
Three years and a couple of new band members later, the transformation into Xanadu-era ELO is finally complete. If, in the late Seventies, or from a late Seventies perspective, you hated Jeff Lynne for selling out the idea of «Beatles on strings», chances are you will also hate Robert Schneider for selling out the idea of Jeff Lynne selling out the idea of «Beatles on strings» — at least, that's the first meta-critical idea that staggers inside the critical head.
It is also, I think, a downright wrong idea. I am a stark supporter of ELO through all the ages (excluding the self-castrated Part II era), and even then, have to take a deep breath before introducing anyone to the guilty pleasures of 'Sweet Talking Woman' — because, in those few nervous seconds it takes people to tell this kind of music from the Bay City Rollers, my life and reputation may be in serious danger. With Travellers In Space And Time, there is no such fear. It is clearly a record that has been recorded in our space and time, and the first reaction of people submitted to Schneider's newest experiment will be amusement rather than indignation.
Amusement, that is, at how niftily he borrows all the starry-eyed elements of that epoch's «sci-fi pop» — the synthesizer bleeps, the electronically encoded vocals, the sub-moronic disco rhythms, the nagging, repetitive hooks, the irritating naïve sentimentality, the disproportionate bombast — and converts them into a hilariously post-modernistic format, in which a «hook» ceases to be a magnet for your emotions and becomes a ridiculously absolute triumph of empty form.
"Before we begin our lessons, I would like to speak to you briefly on what you should know about how to learn the code", someone tells us a few seconds before we begin hearing the music. No question about it: The Apples have definitely mastered "The Code", whatever it is. Of the twelve or so fully fledged songs on the album, I count zero as «filler». Schneider's pop structures have reached their zenith, not least because he is now concentrating only on the things he does best: rhythmic, relatively fast-moving pop-rockers with complex vocal harmonies. No noise, no nonsense, and no languid folk balladry. Nothing in which soul has to be an essential component.
This is not to be taken as a complaint. Singing these here songs with soul could only have spoilt them — could only make people turn away from them as they were liable to turn away from ELO records, because Jeff Lynne, the old bastard, seemed to be trying to convince you that his silly odes to imaginary worlds and idealized females, like, had meaning. What does Schneider say, though? "Elevator, take me straight to your bed, when I look around, it distracts me", he tells us, in one of the album's most memorable killer hooks. Not really a Lynn line, if you ask me, although the melody, sure as hell, could have been written by ELO; yet they would neither arrange it nor sing it quite that way.
If it looks like I'm talking bullshit, we can always go another way: for instance, say that the general message of Travellers In Space And Time is that there is no message, or, at least, you can never figure out the message because things keep changing back and forth, sort of like the Apples' own musical predilections. The album's first single, "Dance Floor", sort of implies that ("The dance floor isn't there no more, but my body's still movin' / Tell me, do you know, where are we to go, when our world is so confusing?"), plus, it provides Schneider with a great excuse to shake his big bulk and wave his professorial beard before the mike in the song's video, like a neighborhood karaoke bar impersonator of Barry Gibb — this kind of nihilistic musical philosophy is probably the only way to let the man get away with embarrassments like these. (For the record, Elijah Baggins is in the video because the band is actually signed to his label, so I guess if he ain't able to make money on them, at least they're a good sport to hang around while goofing off).
Altogether, this is a derivative, absurd, and ultra-rationally hyper-irrational album. Highlights include everything — every song has an attractive structure, although my current favourites are probably the ones that seem like they've been stolen directly out of the wastebaskets of Jeff Lynne ('Nobody But You', beginning like a clone of 'Showdown' and then piling up the cellos and sweet background vocals with such faithfulness they almost seem to be inviting a lawsuit) and Roy Wood ('No Vacation', which sounds like some old Wizzard tune I forgot the name of).
With Schneider's concept of total relativity afloat all of the time, the whole thing is frustratingly waterproof: what good is there to complain that 'No One In The World' is musically simplistic and lyrically primitive? It states its point, doesn't it? It simply got itself allocated its own stance in space and time. Actually, the album does offer the best two lines of text in the Apples' entire history: "You know you feel blue / When you're out of sync with your CPU", Schneider tells us among a sea of melodic bleeps and beeps (quite Pythagorean in scale, I'd say) on 'CPU', the album's least retro-ish track (or, perhaps, most retro-ish, if you trace its origins to the likes of the Silver Apples and USA and their electronic hooliganry).
The only downside is that, as it still happens with the Apples even after all this time, lack of honest emotionality undermines both memorability and attractive force: once the album is over for the fifth time or so, I still do not find myself remembering most songs, or, which is even worse, feeling a strong desire to return to the ones I do remember (like 'Hey Elevator' or the ridiculously outer-space-cheerful 'Told You Once'). Maybe, when all has been said and done and then re-said and re-done again, pot-bellied, bald, and bearded nerd intellectuals should still stick to advanced Linux programming, and leave pop music to young street trash. Or maybe I'm just spewing filthy discriminationalist talk here, but at least don't blame me before you've watched the 'Dance Floor' video on your own. Thumbs up, though, regardless of any worries.
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