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Stereolab

Not Music


[Duophonic / Drag City; 2010]



By ; November 5, 2010 


Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

Usually, I would shy away from reviewing an album of semi-new material from a band with twenty-years of music under their belt if I didn’t have much experience with said band. But who does have a lot of experience listening to Stereolab? The group has made a career out of remaining on the fringe; having never lost their indie cred when they were on a major and now releasing an album a little more than a year after going on indefinite hiatus. But try to have an in-depth conversation with someone about Stereolab and you’ll get little idea of who they are and whether you would like them. Descriptions will mention kraut-rock, lounge and French, and you might hear something about Emperor Tomato Ketchup. I alone have tried to embrace the band on more than a dozen occasions, but found their music to always be better suited for the background than for undivided attention.

Not Music (don’t be fooled by the misleading title, it is totally music), unfortunately, is much of the same, or at least  it is exactly what I expect a Stereolab album to sound like. It’s electronic driven but not dance music, it’s got well-trained multi-lingual vocals but it’s not pretty, and it is well-produced, well-executed and seems to accomplish its goals. But it is not very enjoyable.

Take “So Is Cardboard Clouds.” It feels like a smart song with key-riffs that march around in rapidly changing tones, drum beats that are jazzy and synth-pop-influenced (simultaneously), and vocals that hearken back to the ’70s on the other side of the Atlantic, the kind you imagine sung by a fashion model who will be dead in five years. So when I ask myself “who would actually enjoy listening to this,” my imagination deems musicians, maybe music students, some geeky music journalists even. Anyone who enjoys trying to spot influences from obscure musical movements that were mostly forgotten in the decades prior; this is their cup of tea. For the average listener, or even the above average listener, it is pleasant enough, but not engrossing. This illuminates Not Music’s biggest flaw, and perhaps the band’s. The music sounds emotional, and thus inspires ambivalence.

Songs like “Leklato Sugar” can incorporate lovely horns into their delicate rhythms and melodies, but still sound like music made by brilliant minds that fail to understand why I like music. The is a reason that music is considered an art and not a science, because even when the equation seems to be balanced, music demands non-quantifiable elements to be rewarding.

But Stereolab does offer some tracks on Not Music that are wins. Easy way to find them: if it says remix at the end, it is the strongest material. “Silver Sands (Emperor Machine Mix)” expands the three minute original into ten minutes of bizarre party music. It’s got to be a small work of perfection to make a song that can simultaneously sound like the future and the past, like an old vision of the future. Like the fucking Jetsons. But prolonged organs, flying saucer whizzes and vocals so unaffected they could easily be sampled from unrelated work all gel really well and offer what their early work may have done for that generation, though doesn’t seem to be holding in hindsight.

Also essential is Bradford Cox’s remix of “Neon Beanbag,” under his Atlas Sound moniker. Delving into Panda Bear territory but very much maintaining the dreamy yet mildly creepy  aesthetic that Cox owns, the song is great, but it is hard to really credit Stereolab. I guess I could go to the trouble of finding the original and seeing where the one begins and the other ends, but Stereolab have never inspired me to put effort into finding their music, as stimulating as it can be. But more power to them and their devoted following, I just don’t buy-in that the reward will compensate the work.


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