Chris Von Sneidern: The Wild Horse

[4 November 2003]

By Gary Glauber

The talented Chris Von Sneidern was one of the first do-it-yourselfers, covering multi-tracks with vocals and instruments long before it became so easy and fashionable to do so. Hailing originally from Syracuse, New York, he eventually took his talents out to the Bay Area, where he played with several power pop bands years before first taking the solo road with 1993’s Sight & Sound. To this day, many cite his hook- and harmony-filled 1994 release Big White Lies as the quintessential power pop album. But with ensuing releases, Von Sneidern displayed a growing maturity and variety to his music.

After a few experiments setting poetry to music and assembling a live album, CVS returned to the studio for his first traditional pop release in years. The good news is that The Wild Horse is worth the wait. Von Sneidern’s back with nuance and subtle shadings that make his new music a pleasure to behold.

The Wild Horse displays the fruits of a musical maturity acquired over the years, and is enhanced by two things that weren’t evident earlier in his career: a mastery of the keyboard and a strong vocal sense of soul beneath the traditional pop exterior. Von Sneidern’s work with soul/R&B side-project band the Sportsmen obviously has served him well (and two band members lend a hand here, Khoi-San on piano and Derek Ritchie on drums).

CVS is older and wiser now, and no less talented. While still covering a host of instruments on this self-produced collection, he has written songs in a wider variety of styles and is unafraid of slowing things down to better express the host of difficult emotions behind any song.

Right from the start, you’ll hear the difference. “Remember” is a deceptively upbeat ballad about thinking back on a love that decidedly was one-sided. A great trumpet solo points up what truly is a very full and accomplished arrangement all around. For contrast’s sake, there’s a more soulful 6/8 version of this same song that closes this CD.

“Glory Days Are Gone” hearkens back to earlier CVS music, while lyrically it tends to get a little self-pitying at times, regretting choices made and citing observations of others who have chosen other paths in life. Still, the chorus is infectious and the subtle fills and lush arrangements more than overcome any lyrical weakness. The harmony-filled middle bridge is all the evidence you need to hear to know the old CVS still exists within the more mature singer/songwriter.

“Identity” is another bittersweet gem of lost opportunity: “I could be a memory, stuck inside a stubborn past / I could have taken liberty in making every moment last / Everything is everywhere, take it in but don’t forget / You can fantasize the facts, but what you see is what you get”.

The roots-rockin’ “Ooh Mama Mama” lets CVS stretch in the unlikely direction of white soul à la Lynyrd Skynrd and others. His target here is a sad modern woman bored with her existence who chooses to drink to allay her situation (“only action she gettin’ is a 40 oz. beer”). The song clicks on all cylinders, from the guitars to the backing vocals (Neko Case and Kelly Hogan)—skillfully done.

“A Simple Tune” is just that—a pleasant instrumental ballad with a trumpet lead that goes only a minute and a half.

“Neighbor’s Dog” to my ears is Chris Von Sneidern writing a John Hiatt song (from Hiatt’s catchy heyday) about stalking. This infectious upbeat hybrid has that sort of country energy fueling it, from the guitars to the great shouting harmonies on the chorus. (It currently rivals Bleu’s “Watching You Sleep” as my favorite stalker song.)

CVS continues to create memorable tunes and choruses that remain with you long after the music stops. He does so with “The Ballad of Zoe Snow”, and laces it with irony. Here is the lowly observer, fascinated with the omnipresent beauty of supermodel Zoe Snow while he’s got his head in the oven. Zoe dies in a “superstunt tragedy”, but our pedestrian narrator sings on.

Another highlight from this wonderful CD is the cover of “Downtown”, the one-time Petula Clark hit. Von Sneidern covers it fairly faithfully, and as such, points up the lyrical syncopated pleasures of this fine song to a generation that might not have heard it the first time around.

Segueing from the commercial strains of “Downtown”, Von Sneidern takes his piano directly into the poignant ballad of “Great American Dream”. Here, thoughts of the mysterious nature of love are pondered and ultimately digested as absurd confession—he’s more than merely smitten, he’s in love (“She said, ‘Why, if love is timeless and the words are true, is desire alive today but still refusing you?’”).

The only other non-CVS song here is “Take Me Back”, an organ-tinged taunt to an ex-lover that turns into a plea to be taken back. Von Sneidern surrounds himself with a great arrangement (bass and drums and organ), and vocally, he truly makes the song his own.

The folky and Dylanesque “Horse House” combines traditional harmonica-backed western blues with modern lyrics. The casual delivery here makes the paradox of those often-comical lyrics float by somewhat without question.

“Our Last Waltz” is another beautiful song, traditional CVS in tone brought to another level of emphasis with the addition of the piano’s sweet grace notes. “(Watch Them) Ride Away” again uses piano to great effect, an observational song about one’s sacrifices in life for love, pondering if you’d make those same choices again.

There’s plenty of soulful retro-feel to the variety of songs on The Wild Horse. While the CVS of years ago was essentially guitar-based pop, the older, more mature CVS offers richer piano-enhanced arrangements and more expressive soulful vocals in a wider diversity of offerings. This strong 14-song collection is an aural treat that should please older fans and manage to wow a few new ones also. The Wild Horse shows that Chris Von Sneidern has only added to his talent with the experience elapsing years have provided. He is richer for that experience, and with his songwriting and performing abilities, he enriches us too.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/vonsneidernchris-wildhorse/