Robert Schneider: From the Past to the Somewhat More Recent Past
Sometimes press releases do absolute disservice to the album they are theoretically trying to sell. The press release accompanying Expo, the new album from former Apple in Stereo Robert Schneider’s solo project Marbles, is a perfect example of one that actually undersells its product. In fact, the most damning quotes come from Mr. Schneider himself.
The first miscue comes when the press writer mentions the fact that Marbles, Schneider’s pre-solo career solo project, has now been retooled to be Schneider’s outlet for his hitherto unsuspected synth-pop loving side. Now, it shouldn’t be surprising to find a former member of the Elephant 6 collective jumping ahead two decades by moving on from ‘60s psychedelic pastiches and into the current nostalgia craze of eighties new wave. After all, Of Montreal has made a rather successful transition from twee psych-pop to slick electro-rock. Still, with the Apples in Stereo, Schneider turned his tributes to all things Beatles and Brian Wilson into pop masterpieces. He was the consummate Revivalist. It seems odd for him to be even acknowledging that music was still being made after, say, 1974 or so. The fact that, here now in 2005, ‘80s music has become as trendy as No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em and Support The Troops magnetic ribbons, it is easy to think that Schneider is attempting to jump on an already full bandwagon. Schneider, in perhaps the least inspiring quote ever to grace a press release, claims that he isn’t trying to follow any sort of trend, instead he just happened to “hear ‘80s music in the grocery store”. Hence, Expo is a 25-minute album conceived at the produce section, featuring a performer who had not previously shown a hint of interest in the album’s musical genre. From the sound of the press release, this album should be a trifling throwaway.
Luckily, Schneider is so deft with the simple pop song that Expo is a rather charming little album. It is certainly not essential, but, then again, neither were any Apples in Stereo albums and you’re not going to find me tossing away Her Wallpaper Reverie or The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone any time soon. The synth-heavy instrumentation doesn’t actually change Schneider’s approach very much. In fact, only the opening “Circuits” seems to follow a new wave song structure, the rest of them sound like Beatlesque pop tunes performed with keyboards. There’s less guitar and more beeps, but the songs themselves are sugary gems anchored by Schneider’s emotional, high pitched voice and his ability not just to create a great hook, but his skill in placing that hook at the exact right moment. “Cruel Sound”, which lasts about a minute and a half, is a Schneider song condensed. It features no fewer than three hooks just in the chorus: the short, sharp repetition of “hear the people laughing”, Schneider slowing down to sing the title, and then a brief keyboard blurt. It’s a shame he did not bother to lengthen it to go with the other two certifiable classic Schneider compositions, the longing “Out of Zone” and the blast of summer that is “Magic” (not a Cars cover, although I wouldn’t mind hearing that).
Unfortunately, two other Schneider comments do actually pinpoint Expo‘s problems. “I did it all on my laptop,” he says, “in the back room of my house while sitting on the sofa and watching Cartoon Network”. There is a sense of laziness in some of the tracks, particularly the instrumental tracks that sound like they belong on the soundtrack to some forgotten 8-Bit Nintendo video game. (I swear that the brief title track has to be from one of those cartridges.) Also, he mentions that he wanted to sound “like Gary Numan crossed with ELO”. When your art is based on homage, it’s always risky to name specific artists. It takes something of a genius to explicitly borrow the sounds of other bands and rework them into something distinctly your own. Schneider, in this case, has revealed his hand, to the detriment of his own creativity. In this instance, my appreciation for the childlike ode “Hello Sun” was dimmed by the knowledge that it was basically a mash-up of “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Cars”.
Expo, while clearly something of a lark, proves that Schneider is one of the masters of the pop song no matter what the context. In fact, Expo helps prove his critics wrong when they accuse him of being more of a tribute artist than a performer in his own right. Taking on an entirely new genre of music, Schneider shows that he does have his own signature style, independent of whatever influences he decides to dabble in.