The question of Stereolab

A critical fave incites two critics to disagree critically.

Why Stereolab rocks

I'M THE FIRST TO ADMIT that Stereolab's willful obtuseness can be a drag. Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night? What the hell does that mean, and what's it doing on the cover of my new Stereolab album? Dots and Loops summed things up so much more succinctly.

Oh yeah, and before I start to praise these pan-European purveyors of prismatic electronic drone-pop, I'd be remiss not to note the ever-encroaching will of Tortoise's John McEntire on the Stereolab aesthetic. You give this record a cursory listen, note the vibes and repetitive phrases—phases?—then bring the oddly titled disc into a morgue, and it's gonna get tagged "post-rock" and thrown on the same slab as any other Chicago math-jazz ensemble.

Stereolab's music isn't dead, however, nor is it boring, pretentious, stale, lackadaisical, or any of the other expletives hurled by critics. Hubby and wife Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier's Brit-French background and artsy musical development could surely inspire a Julian Barnes story (if not a novel), and on record they and their longtime cohorts explore sound and form with a precocious vigilance.

Early Stereolab discs like Peng! and The Groop Played Space Age Batchelor Pad Music bent toward accessibility, with knowing nods to krautrock concealed beneath an easier-to-swallow swell of coloristic pop and hipster-acquainted lounge. The band reached an exquisite point in 1996 with Emperor Tomato Ketchup, gracefully working in layers of hip-hop and jazz without subtracting other bits. Ever since that dip into widespread acceptance—the record sold in excess of 100,000 units—Stereolab's leaned heavily on McEntire's concepts, as well as those of the High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan, both of whom have become additional members in the studio.

Which perhaps explains why Stereolab's more cohesive in a live setting, as well as more immediately endearing. I can't lie: It took me eight or nine spins to even approach the perimeter of the latest disc and the one before it (Dots and Loops), and people who don't get paid to spend their time worrying about whether Stereolab's latest is a masterpiece have more pressing matters to attend to. But Gane anchors the band on stage, squeezing out guitar riffs that breathe and linger. Sadier and Mary Hansen trade vocal parts coolly, coyly, as the rhythmic patter behind them builds to primal heights teetering between hip-hop and jazz. Where they sound soporific on record (arguably), the musicians become buoyant channelers in the live setting.

On this last point I can offer a testimonial. Upon hearing Dots and Loops, I joined the chorus of harumphs. "There aren't any pop songs hiding behind the sonic detritus here!" we all shouted in unison. Then I saw Stereolab play two consecutive nights, jamming out tunes for 20 minute stretches that practically made the entire room melt. In those moments, even I could have been convinced that this group could play voltage in the milky night, whatever that is.—R.A.M.

Why Stereolab sucks

STEREOLAB HAVE FLATTENED out and rendered meaningless a wider array of influences (krautrock, French pop, easy listening, post-Pet Sounds orchestral pop, Marxist ideology, John Cage's theories of sound organization) than any other band in history, and they deserve credit, because that really is some kind of achievement. Not that this is the accomplishment they're normally cited for: Usually it's their part in breaking indie rock's stranglehold of guitar-band whinery. As guitarist Tim Gane sniffed in an interview with The Wire, "Guitar music is becoming tediously traditional."

Well, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Thanks in large part to Gane and company, today's indie lexicon is every bit as stiflingly self-absorbed as its predecessor, only this time it's done in the name of novelty instead of expression. (We also have the Groop to thank for their part in turning remixing from a way to make a record more danceable and exciting into a diddlefest as dull and endless as a 36-CD Yngwie Malmsteen box set.) Over the course of their career, it's become painfully obvious why Stereolab have chosen this route: They have nothing to express outside of "Look at how much more obscure our record collections are than yours." (Insert rock critic joke here.) There's nothing inherently wrong with this—look how far Sonic Youth have gotten with a similarly impersonal approach. But what separates Stereolab from just about every other band on earth isn't just its determination to not rock (by now I'm convinced that they're not just holding back—they're incapable), but to not make their listeners feel anything at all. With a handful of exceptions (most of which are on Emperor Tomato Ketchup, the only 'Lab result you need consider owning), this celebrated drone band's one-note riffing accrues no tension and gathers no acceleration; instead, it just goes on and on, looping as constantly as a Hanna-Barbera cartoon background.

I have absolutely no problem with this approach. I don't give a flying fuck about "real songs" or any of that hand-wringing rock-diehard bullshit. I go to raves and clubs and I dance to the same beat for hours at a time; I listen as much to Steve Reich and Jeff Mills as I do Nirvana or Led Zeppelin. I like repetition, a lot. I just think Stereolab is bad at it: joyless, uncompelling, and not nearly as smart or clever as they think they are, like a kid who uses a lot of big words without knowing quite what they mean. More compelling in theory than practice, they remain the best argument against art-school intellectualism I've ever heard.—M.M.

 
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