Bob Schneider has been a mainstay of the Austin music scene for over ten years now, and still remains fairly unknown outside of Texas. In fact, at a recent concert in Virginia, it seemed the audience was made up of more Texan expats than locals. Schneider's sound isn't Texan, though--at least not like Stevie Ray Vaughan, ZZ Top, or Lyle Lovett. He doesn't sing with a drawl, and he's as like to say a four-letter epithet in his songs as he is to say m'am. His sound typically runs between a growling hip-hop to straight-ahead rock that used to be the mainstay of 80s rock. That may be what prevents Schneider from breaking through, as he does flirt with a number of genres, some of which are extremely out of vogue. He's also extremely prolific, having fronted both the Ugly Americans and the Scabs as well as releasing several solo albums and at least one duet with Mitch Watkins, so it's a bit tough for new listeners to know exactly where to begin with his catalog. Which makes The Californian a welcome addition to Schneider's oeuvre, because it gives an overview of all his facets and is likely the strongest set of songs he's ever put on a single album.
The CD starts with "Holding in the World," that immediately grounds the listener into Bob's world: a guitar riff that seems the offspring of Foreigner or Bad Company and then Bob's voice comes in, harkening back to Bob Seger's growl or even a young Tom Waits. His voice has matured with the years, a deep baritone that has some remnants of the dangerous sound of Johnny Cash when he still did rockabilly. And when the song hits the sing-a-long chorus, it's almost too infectious--this is the kind of music you find yourself humming for hours and days after hearing. Schneider's a child of the 80s, and like Ben Folds, will often pepper his songs with both cultural references to that time period (such as comic books on songs like "Superpowers"). He also has absorbed a fair amount of hip-hop, which shows up in both the attitude of songs like "Everything I Have Means Nothing to Me Now" or "Mix It Up." "Game Plan" sounds like a cross between Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as I Know It" as done by a hip-hop artist. And for the modern rock crowd, songs like "Flowerparts" sound like a Coldplay song rescued from an alternative Earth.
According to the liner notes, this album was recorded live in the studio, often on the first take, with only a minimal amount of overdubs. This is similar to previous releases by Schneider like Songs Sung and Played on the Guitar at the Same Time that are often only a step away from demos. However, in this case, the songs are being performed by a road-tested and experienced band who are tight--these songs sound like they were produced, even when they aren't. What this album also captures is the raw power of Schneider live, who can energize a crowd and get them singing along with him. Several of the songs here benefit from choruses or parts that invite crowd participation, including the goofy final song on the album, "The Sons of Ralph," which is like something Tenacious D would have written.
Musical tastes go in cycles, and the kind of music that Schneider is performing--a rougher, hard edge guitar-driven rock--doesn't sit well with American Idol vocalist-driven pop or the do-it-yourself sound of garage bands. If Schneider can sit it out and wait for the cycle to turn, he's situated to break into the mainstream as long as he can keep releasing albums of this quality. I envy those people who will discover him in the future, because they'll have some great music to unearth as they descend into his back catalog.