Stereolab is one of those bands that you cannot simply sit back and enjoy. To some degree, they demand that you, the listener, hunt down their influences. On their best days, the band produces the type of wonderfully loopy music that’s familiar enough to be instantly appealing, but foreign enough to make the listener curious about its origins. And so, people lucky enough to find Stereolab probably pushed a little further and found themselves grabbing any and all Krautrock and exotic pop they could get their hands on. You have to appreciate a band that doesn’t just distill their influences into fantastic music, but deliberately or not directs their audience towards obscure or under-appreciated segments of the musical lexicon.
Once upon a time, there was nothing like Stereolab, no band that combined such disparate and intriguingly alien influences into something so bubbly, fresh and accessible. Now, Stereolab sounds like, well, Stereolab. They’ve been doing this long enough that they have a well-known brand, and their fans have a decent idea of what to expect from them; this isn’t to say, however, that the band is resting on its laurels. Bandleaders Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadler haven’t lost their interest in adventurous pop, but the announcement of a new Stereolab album doesn’t necessarily portend, as it once did, material unlike anything we’ve heard before. It’s even less exciting to hear that their latest (and possibly last) album is comprised of tunes that didn’t make it on to their previous studio record.
And that’s the case with Not Music, an album comprised of songs that were recorded during the Chemical Chords (2008) sessions. It’s a questionable decision to even release that information, since the audience’s listening experience will undoubtedly be colored by the idea that they are just getting the dregs of the last album. Fortunately, Not Music is loaded up with plenty of sprightly highlights to put that bias to rest.
Opener “Everybody’s Weird Except Me” successfully sets the tone for the rest of Not Music. That is to say, it’s a sort of hyperactive bossa nova tune replete with all manner of bouncy synthesizers and charming backing vocals. Follower “Supah Jaianto” is equally effervescent, sending Sadler’s vocals careening around an ever-changing pop landscape flecked with disappearing and reappearing horns and vibes. In fact, much of Not Music’s success is directly attributable to Sadler’s tendency to deliver unflappable, almost jaded vocal performances in the midst of such erratic, splashy pop. With Sadler acting as an anchor, the rest of the band is free to swerve in and out of the songs at unpredictable intervals. It’s telling that when Sadler mostly sits out the second half of the ten-minute, infectious centerpiece “Silver Sands (Emperor Machine Mix)”, the band switches out of the entrancing Krautrock groove they’ve established and falls into a safe, though equally enjoyable, disco beat through to the song’s conclusion.
Not Music may not have any kind of overarching theme or thematic purpose, and that does prevent the album from feeling essential, but there’s a lot more good than bad. Stereolab is still in that rare class of band that is inimitable, largely because even attempting to imitate them would be tremendously difficult. After nearly twenty years, Stereolab’s sound is their own, and if their post-Not Music hiatus turns permanent, the musical terrain will be considerably less colorful for it.