On Stereolab

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Milky Night

I’ve just learned — admittedly belatedly — that the venerable Marxist Space Lounge Groop Stereolab have gone on hiatus (read: called it quits for now) after nineteen years of creating some of the most beautiful pop music of the last couple decades.

The conventional hipster wisdom on Stereolab is that their early, more Krautrock-influenced work is better than their later, more lounge oriented records. I think this is wrong, and really is just another example of hipster reverse-elitism.  The same sort of mindset that has rehabilitated the critical opinion of Led Zeppelin, while still deriding Pink Floyd (though the The Pink Floyd of Syd Barrett is, in my opinion, the unwarrented recepient of hipster beneficence).  But that is another matter, so back to Stereolab:

Whereas the early records were challenging and raw, the later albums eschew the droning monotony of Peng! and the brilliantly named Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements in favour of baroque melodicism and ornate, Bacharachesque arrangements. Out with the droning fuzz guitars and Motorik beats; in with the vintage synths and bouncy, vaguely Latin rhythms.

The switch begins on 1994’s Mars Audiac Quintet which featured the hit “Ping Pong”, perhaps the most beautiful Marxist critique of Keynesian economics ever recorded. From then, the ‘Lab spent the next decade and a half refining their Space Age Bachelor Pad music. While I think that their best album may be 1997’s Dots And Loops or 2004’s Margerine Melody (a tribute to the sadly late keyboardist and noted cycling helmet advocate* Mary “Marge” Hansen), I will always have a fondness for 1999’s Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night.

Sure, much of the album is dedicated to noodly meanderings — it’s been said that Stereolab never let a good melody get in the way of their intricate arrangements — but the record’s highpoints (“People Do It All The Time”, “Infinity Girl”, “Come Play In The Milky Night”, etc) overshadow the more self-indulgent parts and would seem perfectly at home blasting out Wowbagger The Infinitely Prolonged’s ultra-stereo. [If the name “Wowbagger” is unfamiliar to you, you should probably ignore this nerdy reference and move on to the next paragraph].

By far, the Groop’s weakest link, however, is their vocals. While Laetitia Sadier is technically a good vocalist, her phrasing — what I like to call “flow” — is off. The lyrics don’t always scan as they try to shoehorn leftwing sloganeering into the music’s tight structure. A perfect example is in the otherwise brilliant “Op Hop Detonation” whose third chorus is a mish mash of misphrasing and over-earnestness:

We who’re young and beautiful
We who can stand up and walk
Our lives we will learn to control
We who’re young and beautiful
Respond revolution when
We hear the word suffering

Seeing these words in print does not carry over the awkwardness with which they are sung.  The first line, for example, sounds like Sadier and Hansen are describing themselves as “we whores” and the rhythm of the line dictates that “beautiful” has to be phrased “beau-TI-ful” upsetting the flow of the song.  Clearly, they have forgotten the lessons of Dylan and Beefheart: when it comes to words, the rhythm is the most important element and should not be sacrificed for ideological content.

Still, the words are ultimately unimportant (and the phrasing problem doesn’t seem to be an issue when Sadier sings in French, but that may only seem so due to my Anglophone background), and even at their most egregiously earnest, the vocals still fail to scupper their gorgeous accompaniment.

While I have always been a fan of bands that break up before they get a chance to soil their canon (could somebody please direct Mr. N. Gallagher’s attention to the Beta Band?), I can only hope that this hiatus is not a permanent one (Godspeed?) and the Groop returns to play some more Voltage in the Milky Night.  In the meantime, all of you should go out and pick up a copy of Dots And Loops.

* Too soon?

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~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on May 12, 2009.

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