When this album appeared on my radar, I was a little surprised. I had lost contact with The Apples in Stereo since the pseudo-dissolution of Elephant 6, which, despite its somewhat recent revival, seems like a utopian dream from a bygone era. Indeed, the concept of tape-trading high school/college kids forming a collective to start a lo-fi studio and label with a small rotating stable of bands cross-pollinating members and styles screams Gen X. So do the Apples in Stereo records I remember: Fun Trick Noisemaker and, to a lesser extent, Her Wallpaper Reverie were full of the sort of fuzzed-out pop songs that defined early-90s “lo-fi”; in my mind, nothing aside from Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand defined the genre more.
Imagine my surprise to learn that not only are The Apples in Stereo still making records in 2010, but that they’re making E.L.O. records. I’m even more surprised to find I can’t shake the notion that Travellers in Time and Space might just be one of my favorite albums of the last several years. If I had been paying attention all along, this would not be the case. 2007’s New Magnetic Wonder had the same futuristic subject matter and synth- and vocoder-heavy production, and they hardly faded into obscurity; their song “Energy” is featured in a friggin’ Pepsi commercial, and they received an Independent Music Award (Best Pop/Rock Song) for “Same Old Drag.” Even the press release should have given me a pretty reasonable expectation, with Robert Schneider claiming the album would be full of “retro-futuristic super-pop” recorded for the benefit of future generations. And yet, even had I known all of this in advance, I doubt anything could have prepared me for this kind of accomplishment: Travellers in Time and Space is a bona fide pop masterpiece.
It’s one thing to say a record is full of hooks, but boy do these hooks have barbs, with juicy earworms to bait them. There are too many to count, and this is coming from a self-professed demi-curmudgeon: there are more memorable melodies on this one album than I am likely to hear for the rest of the year. To rattle off a few highlights, the chorus of “Hey Elevator,” the chorus of “No Vacation,” all of “Told You Once,” and the verses of “It’s Alright” and “Nobody But You” all contain leaping, soaring melodies that I will have a hard time getting out of my head — though I don’t know why I’d want to. Vocoded back-up vocals and well-placed “oohs” really seal the deal (and yes, it really is a significant achievement to incorporate “ooh-oohs” as skillfully as Schneider does here), and I am tempted to say that the only way to dislike this record is not to enjoy fun.
The similarities to Electric Light Orchestra are not merely superficial; from the harmony of contrapuntal instruments to the minor-major tonalities, many tracks here swell with the bombast and precision of Jeff Lynne’s finest work, deftly combining sophisticated orchestration with toe-tapping tunes. The few songs that don’t sound like a 1970s version of The Future stem from the more standard territory of 90s alt-rock; “C.P.U.” (composed at least partially by aleatoric means), “Next Year At About The Same Time,” and “Dignified Dignitary” would have fit nicely on earlier Apples in Stereo albums. If there is anything that will put people off, it will either be the ultra-nasal quality of Robert Schneider’s voice or the fact that Travellers is a sci-fi concept album. The latter feature is easy enough to ignore if one chooses to, because the album is the opposite of the foreboding, dark, opaque, dystopic sonic landscape you expect when you hear “sci-fi concept album. If Schneider’s voice is a deal-breaker for you, that would be a shame, because you’d be missing out on a fantastic, forward-facing pop record that is truly a joy to listen to.
Robert Schneider has always been an expert tunesmith, which makes the potentially disastrous transition from garage rock to super hi-fi feel like a natural extension of The Apples’ ambition. Not only has the evolution been seamless, but an expanded mastery of studio technique has only served to buttress a fine collection of songs on Travellers. If the kids of tomorrow are getting down to this, perhaps the future isn’t so scary after all.