Monday, September 6, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 72 - Stereolab

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

It's a rare song that tells a coherent story from start to finish. There are a few examples, but more often than not, a song uses its lyrics to highlight certain images, recall scenes or ideas in the listeners' minds. Some lyricists walk a fine line being being enticingly cryptic and maddeningly obtuse, but much of the fun of listening and re-listening to songs come from the lyrics that strive to be more poetic than mere narrative. 

In general, the better your music is, the more forgiving I am when it comes to your lyrics. If you have great music, than lyrics are almost like an afterthought, a necessary ingredient to tie your song together and give your singer something to do. If you have terrible music, I start looking through your lyrics for any sort of redeeming quality. I usually don't find any because, frankly, a lot of popular music lyrics fail to hold up to any kind of scrutiny. 

Then there are those musical groups that use lyrics, but the vocalist is just another instrument, rather than the central focus of the song. I feel that a lot of indie-type music from the past decade or so skews toward this aesthetic - dense sonic layering with the voice being but one layer. There are lyrics, but they really don't matter and you're never going to hear them without affixing your eyes to the liner notes anyway. Best to give up and just enjoy the experience. 

Stereolab was this sort of band for me. The lyrics are often hard to decipher, but because vocals are only used as another element of the equation, I hardly minded. The only time it got annoying is when I could almost make out the lyrics, and it sounded like they were on the verge of explaining the meaning of life to me. I finally succumbed to the bug and looked up the lyrics to "Three-Dee Melodie":

The meaning of existence
Can't be supplied by religion or ideologies
Left to all our creativity we must find
The real significance that wouldn't be mystified

Hmmm. Perhaps its best if I ignore the lyrics and just listen to the music on this one?



MY LISTENING: I listened to Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996) every day this week. I also listened to Transient Random Noise-Bursts With Announcements (1993) and Mars Audiac Quintet (1994) twice, and Sound-Dust (2001) once.

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Practically nothing. I had checked out Sound-Dust from my public library last fall, but the CD was scratched pretty badly and I couldn't listen to anything beyond the first track. But I was intrigued by what I heard, and a commenter last year encouraged me to check out Stereolab. So here I am. 


Listening to Stereolab is like being exposed to some retro Jetsons-esque vision of the future. Bells ring, whistles blow, there are hums and drones and whirrs and squeaks and all sort of sounds that are applied to just the right place in the music. A lot of the instruments they use are old-fashioned analog devices, recalling the past days when a theremin sounded futuristic. The band are masters at utilizing these small sounds, and blending them all together to create an actual piece of music. Most of their tracks are simple, just a single riff or beat repeated for six minutes, but it's the addition of these sounds that you don't get in most music that keeps their stuff interesting. Listen to "Black Ants in Sound-Dust" - one of their shorter tracks that nonetheless portrays a vision of the future that wouldn't be out of place in a 1960s episode of Star Trek.

Many of Stereolab's songs are like getting on a carousel and going around again and again. The melodies are catchy but simplistic, and the true meat of the song comes with how it builds, slowly, over its duration. In this way, Stereolab reminded me of minimalist composers like Philip Glass, whose music that seems simple the entire way through, but then you investigate and there's actually a lot going on beneath the surface. Like a carousel, you never actually go anywhere, but you're moving very quickly nonetheless. Emperor Tomato Ketchup had the best kinds of these songs - "Les Yper-Sound" and "Motoroller Scalatron" are two that are pretty rocking despite their repetition. 

Stereolab's older stuff isn't quite as melodic, and much more subtle and less danceable than the Emperor Tomato Ketchip era. There's still good stuff to be found, but it takes a little more concentration. The space age, drone heavy "Analogue Rock" was a highlight from their first album for me, and both "Anamorpose" and "Fiery Yellow" were two more restrained versions of minimalism. Emperor Tomato Ketchup is more upbeat, and can function as catchy background music, which is part of its appeal, but Stereolab's older stuff can be interesting in a more involved way, even if it might not have as much mainstream appeal.

Finally, I just want to stress that I think I found Stereolab so interesting because they sound so original. I know this is a claim laid on many bands, but I feel that Stereolab does have a very distinctive sound.  Unlike last week's Interpol, in which many critics delighted in playing "Name that influence," Stereolab somehow manages to stand out, which really made them fun.


The downside to Stereolab's aesthetic is for while some songs are interesting and varied enough to justify the repetitive structure, there are others that are merely that: repetitive. This is especially true on their earlier albums: Transient Random Noise-Bursts With Announcements had tracks like "Our Trinitone Blast" and "Pause" which were dead in the water for me. It turns out that there's a fine line between a slowly morphing repetition, and a repetition that just sits there doing nothing. It doesn't help that Stereolab's earlier albums were prone to an underlying drone - at least by the time of Emperor Tomato Ketchup they were manufacturing some catchy melodies. Really, that drone drove me crazy sometimes, like on the seven minute "Nihilist Assualt Group."

But my larger issue with Stereolab is a criticism that is hardly fair, but I'll make it anyway: they don't go far enough. Listening to both Transient Random Noise-Bursts and Sound-Dust, separated by eight years and four albums, there's not a whole lot of difference. Sure, the former album is more droney, the latter more melodic. But it seems that Stereolab took that big step into this minimalist-futuristic aesthetic and then floundered. 

A lot of critics classify Stereolab as "post-rock," a term that is stupid in a lot of ways but also sums up the central problem of Stereolab: once you've moved beyond the structures of rock, where do you go? Is there anywhere to go? Their music is innovative, no longer rock, but beyond dismantling these its structures the group never really built on their initial advance. As I said, it's not really a fair complaint (Why weren't they more creative than they were?!?) but one that came back to me after listening to four Stereolab albums non-stop this week. I like Stereolab a lot, but I don't feel they're a band for which one needs to explore the entire discography. Has any band built on Stereolab's aesthetic? I think there's a lot that could be done within their framework. I'll need to do some exploring. 

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There's also Peng! (1992), Dots and Loops (1997), Margarine Eclipse (2004) and Chemical Chords (2008). But, as I said, I don't know if I need anymore Stereolab albums. 

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: Have you heard any Stereolab? "Ping Pong" seems to be one of their few tracks that has garnered any sort of real acclaim. 

"Metronomic Underground" is the best distillation of Stereolab out there. Repetitive but varied, catchy and ambitious but still restrained, utilizing both dance beats and experimental music, you haven't heard anything like it and it will be stuck in your head all day.

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: Michael Jackson