Stereolab is an important band. "Important" usually means pretentious or unjustly praised. In this case, it means "influential," a word that can also be translated as "not popular" or "not a big seller."
Not having hit records can sentence otherwise great bands to blunderdom. Some strive to be more commercial (see: Replacements, circa Don't Tell a Soul). Some give up (see: Big Black, circa Songs About Fucking). Then there are artists who just keep on going, not for the fame, glory or money, but to suit their personal tastes. At best these bands end up as critics' favorites and little else.
The French/British/Australian group's latest, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, comes with the baggage of a group held in high esteem by fellow musicians and loved mainly by critics (which, coupled with a dollar, will get the band a Slurpee). The fact is, most people aren't interested in the band's sonic melange, a multifaceted and intelligent amalgam of Burt Bacharachian melody, Brazilian rhythms, stereo experimentation, drone, indie-rock pretension and Krautrock subversiveness. It's futuristic music, based mainly on elements of the past. The band stands little chance of being popular, not because the songs aren't catchy, but because it leaves too much up to listeners to experience for themselves.
On Cobra and Phases, Stereolab, which includes Laetitia Sadier, Tim Gane, Mary Hansen, Simon Johns and Morgane Lhote, proves that it is a rare group that can seem so complex and simple at the same time: a thinking person's pop group.
Thinking, particularly about music, is very "important" to Sadier. In her French-soaked English, she says, "Everyone has to think about what they are doing. Otherwise it's not worthwhile. You're just a machine or this alienated thing that does what their parents told them or what the general trend tells them to do. That's sad. Then life is not worthwhile. You just get so much more out of something when you have put your thought into it. When you've put a lot into it, you will get a lot out of it. Kind of a simple thing, really."
Simple, but an uncommon idea in popular culture. Despite the band's easy-grooving vibe, a lot of thought goes into making Stereolab music. Formed in 1990 by Sadier and Gane, Stereolab has never made the message easy for listeners. Over the course of ten records (including singles collections), the band has explored analog keyboard sounds (e.g., Farfisa, Moog, organs), has made mountains of songs from simple, repetitive rhythms and has camouflaged lyrics of Marxist dogma in Sadier, Hansen and Lhote's precious voices. In turn, artists as diverse as Tortoise, Autechre and Blur have worked with the band, either in guest spots or on remixes. And the group can single-handedly be credited with bringing the sci-fi sound of the Moog back into fashion.
After making its name and crafting a unique and recognizable sound, the quintet has actually gotten more experimental. Though they all have their merits, the band's records from the first half of the decade can run together in a swirl of outer-space, multilingual funky astro-pop. Emperor Tomato Ketchup, from 1996, can be seen as the last of the band's relatively straightforward pop leanings. On Dots and Loops the following year, the band embraced a wider array of electronic noises, jazz phrasings, melodic exploration and studio manipulation. For that album the group recorded individual sounds on a computer, then looped, tweaked and rearranged them into songs. The band members had to learn how to play the finished tracks live before embarking on a tour. The album was another critics' Top 10 record, but not the commercial breakthrough to which Ketchup seemed to lead.
Fortunately, the band continues to evolve without much regard to commercial potential. Produced by John McEntire of Tortoise and with string arrangements from Jim O'Rourke (Sonic Youth, Superchunk), Cobra and Phases maintains much of Loops's jazzy tone but adds brass, vibes, marimbas and strings. "The Free Design" sounds like big Brazilian jazz production, what with stuttering piano and rambling horn lines in 6/4 time. But that doesn't mean the bubbling space synths are gone. "Op Hop Detonation" slides and swings under layers of funky clavinet and various other keyboards.
The music might be easy listening, what with its kitschy grooviness, but Stereolab is oblique in an arty way. Its music stimulates thought by giving hints of information. The lyrics can be difficult to understand because they're low in the mix, contain wry economic observations and are mostly in French. Of course, it's easy to enjoy bubblegum-cum-lounge pop stylings without delving deeper, but the layers of Stereolab's sound are there. It's a Tootsie Pop covering sandpaper.
"Tim and I like to do records that have many layers," Sadier says. "There are levels in the music with several ideas thrown in together. Then there is the sleeve with the colors that will shape the way you are going to approach the record and listen to it. There are the titles that are very open to interpretation, and then there are the lyrics that are yet another level. It's all there, and people can dig up things as they go along. We'll leave it up to them to make their own associations or conclusions.Or to come up with their own questions."
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Sadier isn't just a passionless, ironic intellectual. "There's a lot of things that I hate," she says. She points the finger, first and foremost, oddly enough, at retro-minded bands.
"I hate it that people who have their backsides turned to the future should get so much attention by playing the game by the rules and don't bring in anything new," she says. "It's also sick because you walk down the street and hear those tunes coming out of shops and people's cars; it's everywhere. It just has this really comforting feel because it's so familiar, it's just revolting. People want to be reminded of the past. Of course, everyone needs to borrow from the past. You [have] influences, but hopefully you bring in some of yourself now."
This is an interesting tack for her to take, considering that so much of Stereolab's own sound "borrows" from the past. But in the same way that hip-hop sampling can be moronic or creative -- Puff Daddy versus A Tribe Called Quest -- so too is the difference between, say, Oasis and Stereolab appreciable. Because of that it's hard to be hopeful about the group's sales potential. Its record label has twice had the option of dropping the band for not selling a specified number of albums but has continued to support the group. "Of course, they want to sell records, that's why they signed us," Sadier says. "But they understand that we're artists who want to do the records that we want to do. We want to grow organically rather than industrially."
Leave it to a Marxist to bring in mechanization, but Stereolab does what it does to, again, stimulate thought. If that seems like a strange idea, it's because so few bands actually think through what and why they create. With a mixture of the past and the future, Cobra and Phases is the classic sound of "now." And that's important.