Release Date: Nov 16, 2010
Record label: Drag City
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock, Indie Electronic, Indie Pop, Post-Rock, Experimental Rock
After a career that made sugar-coated, Neu!-inspired nihilism and electronic pop music the norm, Stereolab’s decision to go on hiatus after 2008’s Chemical Chords is basically a total bummer. Not Music is made up of, well, music indeed from that 2008 session and shows the band in rainbow funk form—fusing together strains of bossa nova, psychedelia and library soundtracks into one bubbling whole. It’s heady stuff with plenty of detours and time changes, with final track “Pop Molecules” almost creating a full circle back to Peng!’s droning aggression.
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.
When Stereolab announced plans to take an indefinite hiatus in April of last year, they also mentioned that a parting gift was in the works: Chemical Chords 2, a second record of material from the 2007 sessions that spawned the concise, horn-studded Chemical Chords. At the time, Tim Gane told Pitchfork it would "make an interesting kind of sibling or companion to [Chemical Chords]," and that they were hoping to get it out quickly "because it's too similar, it's from the same sort of sessions. " Laetitia Sadier described it as having "31 songs, which are split into two halves.
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).
Though Not Music was released in 2010, it was recorded at the same time as 2008’s Chemical Chords, after touring in support of which Stereolab went on hiatus. Despite its semi-archival status, the album sounds fresh, and distinct from Chemical Chords. It shares the streamlined feel of that album, but many of these songs don’t fit that album’s distillation of lounge, Motown, and French pop elements -- and those that do, such as the brisk, brassy “Supah Jaianto” and “Everybody’s Weird Except Me,” sound like warped reflections of them.
“Hallmarked by a unique, carefully evolving but instantly recognisable sonic signature” is one way (ie, their label’s website’s) of describing 20 years of [a]Stereolab[/a] music. “All sounds the fucking same” would be many other people’s, which may well be true, but also should not be a problem. Other acts in the same box include: [a]AC/DC[/a], [a]The Cramps[/a], [a]Chuck Berry[/a], [a]Mogwai[/a], [a]Dinosaur Jr[/a].
It’s admirable and all-too-rare when bands just decide to call it a day. No acrimonious split, no protracted legal battles and, most importantly, no desecrating your legacy by dragging yourself around on tour to promote an album clearly inferior to those of your salad days (yes, The Rolling Stones, that’s you). It’s easy to see why bands would carry on; musicians often know no other life and, yes, the wheelbarrows full of cash probably help.
Announcing the band’s indefinite hiatus last April, Stereolab’s manager joked that the experimental pop group was feeling a sentiment like “Mission Accomplished”; their Emperor Tomato Ketchup had, after all, been named Amazon’s 51st best Indie Rock Album of All Time. That was the 1996 album on which Stereolab completed their pop turn and, all joking aside, the band has been working in its shadow ever since, in all likelihood aware that the album’s status as a middling landmark for oddball pop enthusiasts would be their legacy. On their last official album, 2008’s Chemical Chords, Stereolab was still making hypnotic pop bricolage from Krautrock, lounge, and psychedelia, fussing with a distinctive sound, as they had for the past decade, while declining to advance it in fundamentally new directions.
Stereolab are on their 12th album. No-one makes 12 albums. Coldplay won’t even make eight albums. And yet, much like Mark E Smith and The Fall, they’ve only ever really made one album. Well, that's not entirely true, the ill expressed anecdote being they’re always instantly recognisable and ….
It is music, of course, but not new music – Stereolab are on hiatus, after all. So here are another 11 tracks from the sessions that produced their 2008 album Chemical Chords, plus a couple of remixes. The niggling sensation that Stereolab work in a hall of mirrors, creating music that endlessly reflects upon itself, is stronger than ever here, especially when faced with Two Finger Symphony and Pop Molecules (Molecular Pop 2), both variations on themes released on Chemical Chords, both repetitive, insistent and faintly irritating.
Last year, Stereolab announced that the band was taking a break to focus on other projects. Over the course of two decades they released a string of albums and singles that built a sizable following as the players developed and reworked the blueprint of their keyboard-driven pop. Not Music collects unreleased tracks from the sessions for 2008's Chemical Chords, their last full-length release.
Business as usual: sprightly, hummable and a lot of fun. Colin Buttimer 2010 Stereolab signalled that they'd gone on indefinite hiatus a year and a half ago. Given the lack of innovation or progression shown by the group's recent recordings, this was seen to be something of a relief. So does the oddly titled Not Music hold any surprises? Yes and no: Stereolab's signature sound is very much present and correct, but this record doesn't sound like the last gasp of a long-lived and generally much-loved band.