The Apples in Stereo’s Travellers in Space and Time could be considered an aural companion to Sir Patrick Moore’s 1983 book of the same name. Both works attempt to transport us through the solar system and to focus our imaginations on possible futures. Both conjure the future, in the present, using evidence from the past. Thanks to the wonders of light travel distance and redshift, we are actually looking back in time when we see images from space. Similarly, the best Apples in Stereo songs treat the listener to an extraordinary echo of modern music history via bandleader Robert Scheider’s remarkable internalization of previous decades of pop/rock.
Although the Apples in Stereo discography has long been popularly classified and referred to as an exercise in revivalism, the band is now particularly direct in announcing Travellers in Space and Time as a sort of time capsule. In a press release, Schneider describes the album as “a futuristic pop record, to reach out to the kids of the future”, and explains his mission to send “a pop message music through time, hoping they will decode it and be into it”. In addition to this statement of programmatic purpose, what most distinguishes this new album from the kind of guitar-driven Nuggets-rock that Schneider and his revolving roster of musicians have delivered over the years is the adoption of disco sounds and techniques. Having heretofore explored a wide gamut of 1960s pop/rock song styles, the band is presently maintaining its three- to four-decade sound travel distance by transitioning into the 1970s and 1980s.
Jeff Lynne is a significant, musically historical figure within the Apples in Stereo’s current sound. As the force behind Electric Light Orchestra, Lynne was among an elite class of musician/producers active in the1970s and 1980s that succeeded in the difficult task of pushing pop/rock music forward in a post-Beatles, post- (classic) Beach Boys, post- (classic) Kinks, post-Zombies, post-Love musical landscape. As is the case with other figures like Trevor Horn, Lynne continues to grow in esteem amongst younger musicians and music fans. It is no surprise that some of their contributions are only now being recognized. After all, those long shadows cast by the giants of 1960s pop/rock likely take quite a while to escape.
Travellers in Space and Time makes use of several of Lynne’s trademark compositional elements, such as ornate keyboard and string arrangements, layered and vocodered vocals and propulsive bass rhythms. Although the baroque and symphonic styles also favored by ELO are somewhat present here, Schneider is working more fully within the mode of ELO works such as Discovery (1979) and the synthesizer-heavy Time. Listeners’ and critics’ attention to dance songs such as “Last Train to London” and “Shine a Little Love” from Discovery have created a misleading reputation for that album as being representative of ELO’s “disco” phase. Additionally, the album’s original U.S. release just happened to precede the infamous Disco Demolition Night by one month, so it was not an ideal time for Lynne to be trying his hand at the disco sound — something he would do more explicitly the following year by contributing to the soundtrack for the derided Xanadu. As is frequently the case with misfiring or misunderstood works, popular taste has since caught up to this era of Lynne’s output, with even the kitschy Xanadu reaching the Broadway stage in 2007, complete with interpolations of ELO hits.
This history is worth reviewing because the division between “pure” rock and roll and dance music was once much more artistically and culturally pronounced than it is today. Possibly, this division within mass culture has morphed into an over-reliance on the approval of tastemakers. One example that unites both the age-old rock/disco division and the contemporary taste tyranny is the widespread reversal of opinion (and eventual adoption by rock audiences) of Daft Punk. All the same, the diminished role of guitars and elevation of keyboards and dance rhythms on Travellers in Space and Time, although comparable to the removal of ELO’s string section and quasi-disco shift of the late 1970s and early 1980s, do not constitute a total game-changer or deal-breaker as they might have for a rock group in those decades. Furthermore, the revitalized Apples in Stereo material does a lot to shake up the myth that there is or should be a “signature” Elephant 6 sound or a standard indie rock sound, for that matter.
Travellers in Space and Time locks into its “pop music for future kids” manifesto and stays there for nearly an hour. There is a near-constant feeling of jubilation. Memorable hooks and melodies (always an Apples in Stereo strong point) abound. Lyrics are both innocent and full of yearning. As a whole, the album plays out much like Junior Senior’s still under-recognized LPs D-D-Don’t Stop the Beat (2003) and Hey Hey My My Yo Yo (2005).
Standout tracks from the album include “Dream About the Future”, which playfully synthesizes homage to Vince Guaraldi with compositional elements that are unmistakably the bequest of Jeff Lynne. Schneider’s distinctive high-pitched vocals work very well for this sugary material, and when paired with the Lynne vocoder style atop layers of keyboards, the effect is irresistibly catchy even for those of us not predisposed to enjoy dance music. As its title suggests, “Dance Floor” is even more concretely a disco number than “Dream About the Future”, creating a vision of utopian dance floor escapism. The song includes an especially satisfying bass-driven breakdown that begins just beyond the song’s midpoint. The snare hits drop out and create some space in the mix as a stack of vocal tracks repeats the phrase “when our world is so confusing” before the song resumes and escalates. “No One in the World” is a piano-led number supplemented by horns, with lyrics that complement “Darlin'” from the Beach Boys’ Wild Honey. Carl and Brian Wilson appear to influence other tracks, as well, especially “No Vacation”, “Told You Once” and “It’s All Right”. Ever the Beach Boys devotee, Schneider includes one number, “Wings Away”, that strongly resembles the solo work of Dennis Wilson.
Although the up-tempo material is wholly enjoyable, the slower and/or stranger songs serve a crucial function by providing counterpoints to the overwhelmingly good vibrations. “The Code”, an introductory spoken word sample that discusses “rhythm expressed sonically”, suggests a mathematical or scientific undertone for the album that follows. “Strange Solar System”, a continuation of “Vocoder Ba Ba” from New Magnetic Wonder, infuses that 2007 Apples in Stereo track with lyrics and literally describes space and time travel. “C.P.U.” makes surprisingly coherent use of Schneider’s own Non-Pythagorean scale. When the song begins, the scale is obviously unorthodox, but the song develops in a way that reorients our ears and normalizes the groundbreaking method. Quieter and less crowded than most of the other songs is “Floating in Space”, which seems to be about the realization of one’s solitude and smallness in outer space. “Floating in Space” provides a bit of a more serious context for the space-disco vibe, and it makes one wish that Schneider would have included one or two more ballads or comedown tracks in this collection. Finally, “Time Pilot” frames the album’s most unforgettable melody and most heartfelt delivery within another dialogue sample (some remarks about hypnosis).
Featuring several new players and a major stylistic shift, Travellers in Space and Time is a turning point for the members of The Apples in Stereo, who are by this point rock veterans themselves. The band sounds completely energized, and although a series of disco-influenced albums might not be advisable, for the moment this direction infuses the band with fresh momentum and should draw the attention of a new fan base. Beyond the tunes, Schneider also seems to have inherited a valuable piece of knowledge from Jeff Lynne, the brothers Wilson and the brothers Gibb: the notion that many forms of music can be carriers and conduits of joy. The modern clash between “indie rock” and careerism/commercial appeal is not so contentious as to cause a riot and forfeit a baseball game (see Disco Demolition Night), but there are plenty of young rock musicians out there who would benefit from exposure to wider ranges of popular music’s past. Perhaps then they would realize that it is okay to focus less on what would be hip and instead produce something that has compositional integrity and moves the listener.