Announcing the band’s indefinite hiatus last April, Stereolab’s manager joked that the experimental pop group was feeling a sentiment like “Mission Accomplished”; their Emperor Tomato Ketchup had, after all, been named Amazon’s 51st best Indie Rock Album of All Time. That was the 1996 album on which Stereolab completed their pop turn and, all joking aside, the band has been working in its shadow ever since, in all likelihood aware that the album’s status as a middling landmark for oddball pop enthusiasts would be their legacy. On their last official album, 2008’s Chemical Chords, Stereolab was still making hypnotic pop bricolage from Krautrock, lounge, and psychedelia, fussing with a distinctive sound, as they had for the past decade, while declining to advance it in fundamentally new directions.
Not Music contains 12 selections from the Chemical Chords sessions plus remixes of two of that album’s highlights. Emperor Machine transforms “Silver Sands” into a 10-minute pastiche of Kraftwerk and New Order’s sounds, whereas Bradford Cox lends to “Neon Beanbag” the hazy, hallucinogenic pleasures of his own Atlas Sound project. These successes are, however, a mixed verdict on Stereolab’s recent output. One could say that they demonstrate the richness of the source material by exploiting its latent potential; on the other hand, they raise the question of why it is that Stereolab hasn’t exploited it themselves. Each remix is a more thoughtful expansion of Stereolab’s sonic universe than the band’s own contributions to Not Music or Chemical Chords. That album was supposed to be inspired by Motown, but if the proud tradition of Motor City soul gave Stereolab any critical purchase on their increasingly straitjacketed sound, the only evidence was a more liberal allotment of bright horn sections.
I suspect that part of what appears to be complacency on the band’s part is actually an experimental sensibility, which, premised on subtle tweaks and reiterations, is more apiece with jazz or, go figure, lab research than the arms race of micro trends and mini scenes definitive of indie music in the P2P generation. And it does bear it’s own rewards: “So Is Cardboard Clouds,” with its ingratiating horns, the rhythmic “Sun Demon,” and “Two Finger Symphony,” which might pass for funky in some alternate universe. Stereolab’s preoccupation with their own aesthetic, inward-looking and playful rather than outwardly ambitious, yields few breakthroughs but plenty of minor revelations, and it’s been central to their songwriting tact throughout their career. It’s an aspect of the band that surely deserves recognition, and Not Music, uneven and understated, is its fitting epitaph.