Stereolab: Not Music

Not Music
Drag City/Duophonic

In so many ways is Not Music a fitting curtain call for Stereolab. For starters, there’s the belated timing of the album’s release, which comes out more than a year after the band called it quits in early 2009 — or, more accurately, went on “hiatus”, as its website puts it. The post-break-up release only reflects how, with the benefit of hindsight, the moment was never quite right for Tim Gane, Laetitia Sadier, and whatever cohort of collaborators was playing with them: While that’s not to say almost all other indie groups wouldn’t love to achieve even a fraction of the band’s influence, acclaim, and success, Stereolab seemed to peak right before it could’ve hit it big, but had its window of opportunity close while still near the height of its creative powers. The future always seemed to hold such infinite commercial possibilities for the cutting-edge act, until time and trends passed Stereolab by.

That Not Music, a secret stash oh-so-Stereolab tunes recorded at the same time as 2008’s Chemical Chords, is being released almost as an afterthought with little fanfare is also indicative of the band’s reception over the years. For casual alterna-rock listeners, Stereolab would be a classic example of a band that many have heard of but not heard — or perhaps heard but not known they had heard. But even for serious fans, Stereolab was a band that could be underappreciated and even set aside when something shinier and newer came along, no matter how consistent and reliably outstanding it was for almost two decades.

But what’s most appropriate about Not Music is that captures many of the qualities that have defined Stereolab over the years, so stylish and creative in its aesthetic, yet so geekish and workmanlike in its approach to making music. Effortless as they might feel, Stereolab songs, even the deepest b-side grooves, never sound tossed off, and the tracks on Not Music are no exception. The new LP is particularly representative of the group’s later albums, which have fewer peaks but almost no valleys, with maybe not as much killer, but definitely no filler. Remember, too, that some of the best full-length offerings in the outfit’s expansive catalog are compilations of singles, bonus tracks, and random odds-‘n-sods, so there’s no chance that Stereolab is just going through the motions even on a batch of extras like Not Music, no matter when, where, and how it’s being released.

It’s tempting to call Not Music a return to form, though that’s hard to say because Stereolab never suffered a real drop off even after it was past its mid-1990s prime. The album is the stuff of futuristic nostalgia — or would that be nostalgic futurism? — that the band had patented long ago, but kept trying to perfect up to and apparently past its final days. From the sprightly keyboard pattern that kicks off opening track “Everybody’s Weird Except Me” onwards, Not Music sounds familiar and comfortable enough, but still seems vital radiating Stereolab’s signature je-ne-sais-quoi cool. With its melodic yet bottom-heavy bass, the short-but-sweet instrumental “Equivalences” gives a nod back to career highlight Emperor Tomato Ketchup, as does the synth-driven “Silver Sands (Emperor Machine Mix)”, a collab which turns out to be the last great ten-minute electrified Krautrock jam to be heard from Stereolab. It’s a welcome reminder of the good ‘ol days, when Gane and whichever musicians he had on stage with him seemed to control time and space by tweaking knobs on a Moog and messing with effects pedals.

Just because Stereolab made it look easy blending together its very own hybrid of kitschy jazz, art music, sixties pop standards, and post-rock so fluidly and fluently doesn’t mean that it was — you might check out recordings by peers like Pram and Laika or followers like Flowchart and Broadcast to see how difficult it is to consistently keep a chilled-out retro vibe from veering into boredom or cliché. Still, it’s not hard to take for granted how good Stereolab was doing what it had been for so long on tracks like the bubbly, precocious “Supah Jaianto” or the space waltz of “Delugeosie”. While you may have heard it all before from ’em, that doesn’t mean you can’t help but admire how painstakingly precise Gane is as a rock composer.

What’s not quite here in full effect, though, is Gane’s pop imagination, which, at its best, showed how Stereolab really had as much proficiency with a knockout hook as it did with setting the mood. The closest you get here to the indie singles machine that Stereolab once was is on “Leleklato Sugar”, as its skronky electronics and ping-pongy keyboards play off each other and flow with the tempo changes, while Sadier’s ethereal vocals float above it all. Even though the band doesn’t quite find the fountain of youth or a new source of energy, you can hear echoes of its pop songs in the feathery riffs and Sadier’s Francophone scatting on “So Is Cardboard Clouds”, which is punctuated by a trilly keyboard embellishment. And if “Two Finger Symphony” isn’t quite the memorable bubblegum confection that Gane and Sadier once created with prolific regularity, there’s something about it that sticks with you still, especially its out-of-tune, off-kilter Jackson Five-like piano intro. All in all, the catchiest tracks on Not Music make a good soundtrack for strolling down memory lane, with Stereolab offering fresh takes on old triumphs, rather than just reliving them.

Mentioning Stereolab in the past tense is a strange thing to do, whether it’s due to the group’s futuristic, forward-looking aesthetic or because the band has been around so long that it’s hard to imagine an indie underground without it. In the end, it’s not such a bad thing that Not Music shows Stereolab fans that they didn’t always fully appreciate what they had until it was gone, even though a lesson like this can only come when it’s too late.

RATING 8 / 10