Stereolab Not Music

[Drag City; 2010]

Styles: electronic pop, space-age bachelor pad music, exotica/tropicalia, high-brow lo-fi
Others: Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, countless imitators

Precious few bands enjoy decades-spanning careers while maintaining critical credibility, let alone praise. Stereolab have accomplished the feat by carefully straddling the fence between the accessible and the avant-garde, incorporating high-brow compositional techniques and equipment, unusual time signatures, and intertwining vocal parts with warm, melodic songwriting that manages to be pleasant without relying on overt pop gestures. They have survived 19 years’ worth of lineup changes — including the traumatic death of longtime keyboard/vocalist Mary Hansen in 2002 — with only Laetitia Sadier and Tim Gane remaining at the helm throughout (though drummer Andy Ramsay has been around for almost as long). Over that time, they have released a steady stream of good-to-great releases, including a few bona fide classics. (Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, Dots and Loops, and Emperor Tomato Ketchup come to mind.) Since they announced a band hiatus in late 2009, Not Music may be the last new recorded output we can expect from Stereolab for the foreseeable future.

What sort of parting shot have they left us with? While not an essential or career-defining effort, Not Music is familiar and pleasant. As opposed to their early-career fuzzy, lo-fi jams (and in keeping with their other post-millennial material), this year’s model of Stereolab is perky, clean, and composed. Recorded during the same sessions as 2009’s Chemical Chords, Not Music consists of remixes and B-sides that nonetheless coalesce to sound like a complete album. The horns that characterized Chemical Chords are present in these recordings too: nearly every track benefits from their lush harmonies and timely blasts. Their usual “motorik” backdrop, consisting of modal vintage-synth vamps, remains fully intact, as do the contrapuntal vocal lines that define much of their recorded output. As per other Stereolab releases, Not Music presents a suitable soundscape for any space-age bachelor pad.

Whether one feels it to be either an essential or an overemphasized aspect of their career, Stereolab have long leaned on certain recurring sonic signifiers that can only be described as “French.” On Not Music, their French-ness rears its head not just linguistically (as on “Delugeoisie”) but formally, like in the salon pop of opener “Everybody’s Weird Except Me” and the pitched percussion of “Supah Jaianto” and “Sun Demon.” Album centerpiece “Silver Sands [Emperor Machine Mix]” expands on the Chemical Chords version and stands confidently alongside past long-form escapades such as “Jenny Ondioline,” tracing a historical path from Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” to Giorgio Moroder’s “E=MC2” over its 10-minute runtime. Listeners unfamiliar with the original versions of “Silver Sands” or “Neon Beanbag” might not immediately recognize the Not Music remixes as the fruits of collaborative labor: both Emperor Machine and Atlas Sound keep their revisions firmly within the established Stereolab sonic landscape.

With any luck, Stereolab’s hiatus will prove to be temporary, but if Not Music is the epitaph of their career, it is a suitably dignified (if not emphatic) one. I come here to praise Stereolab, not to bury them; even their middling LPs are more vibrant than the best work of the throng of imitators that have followed them.

Links: Stereolab - Drag City

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