While at one point – say, 15 years ago – Stereolab might have had a slightly more legitimate claim to calling a new record Not Music, the band’s current trajectory is pushing more and more toward, um… actual music, than their epochal early records did. As studied as Stereolab is, they can’t help but make music. Tim Gane is a composer at heart, Sean O’Hagan arranges strings that would be equally as at home in a 20th Century classical orchestral piece or a Bacharach/David composition, and Laetitia Sadier has become the ultimate indie chanteuse. While their influential first releases were often so minimal and repetitive, and sometimes so much like Muzak, that those with more sensitive ears might not call it “music” as such, recent years have seen a softening, if not a total sweeping away, of those more adventurous elements.
Or perhaps this is a challenge to themselves, since the band declared itself “on hiatus” over a year ago, yet now has a new record out. This is as if to say, “No, we aren’t playing anymore, this isn’t music.” But really, who knows? Chemical Chords, released in 2008, was a great collection of pop songs that fans never thought they’d get from Stereolab, and Not Music continues the trend. The cheekily-titled “Two Finger Symphony,” which plays like a minimalist’s version of “Chopsticks,” retains the lounge-funk of the band’s 90’s output; it sounds like the jarring chase scene from a blaxploitation flick, until Sadier comes in singing. A similar soul influence is present on “Supah Jaianto,” with deftly arranged horn lines (reminiscent more of other blued-eyed imitators like Squeeze than of Motown) that mutate into analog synth with ease. A clever aural trick, and one that reminds you that, even when being formulaic, Gane and O’Hagan like to throw a few dashes of unexpected spice into the mix.
Most songs hew to the three-and-a-half minute mark; the only exceptions are remixes of two tunes from Chemical Chords, “Neon Beanbag” and “Silver Sands.” The latter, regaining old glories at over ten minutes, never gets boring, but does get a little old. Again, there is just enough permutative change happening subtly to stay engaging, but these epic, krauty jams bookend throwaways like the quick, runout-groove jitterbug “Pop Molecules,” which is a maddening exercise in collegiate pretension.
What to make of Not Music? Breaking new ground? Not as such. Redefining an oeuvre? Hardly. More like, an album by a band writing and playing together for the sheer fun of it; it’s getting harder to separate what is and isn’t “music” to Stereolab any more, what’s done in earnest and what’s more of an inside joke.