It’s admirable and all-too-rare when bands just decide to call it a day. No acrimonious split, no protracted legal battles and, most importantly, no desecrating your legacy by dragging yourself around on tour to promote an album clearly inferior to those of your salad days (yes, The Rolling Stones, that’s you). It’s easy to see why bands would carry on; musicians often know no other life and, yes, the wheelbarrows full of cash probably help. Synth experimentalists Stereolab shunned the band lifestyle in 2009 - on “indefinite hiatus” according to their website - following nearly two decades of French vocals, post-rock and general Moog-based larks.
No real reason was given for the end of Stereolab; just they needed “a bit of a rest” and they planned to “work on other projects”, according to a statement on their website. Their last album before this announcement was 2008’s disappointing Chemical Chords. Admittedly their tenth full-length album, it remains the sound of a band devoid of inspiration and content to recycle old ideas. The fact that this album, Not Music, is comprised from songs recorded during the Chemical Chords sessions doesn’t bode too well.
That said, any feelings of apprehension are likely to melt away within just a few seconds of pressing ‘Play’. Opener, Everybody’s Weird Except Me, bursts out of the speakers with its twitchy rhythms and upbeat melody line. Sure, it retains the trademark Stereolab keyboard motorik beat and analogue, reverb-drenched squelches, but it’s ostensibly a commercial pop song. This is by no means a bad thing, just surprising, especially from an album which is meant to be little more than cut-offs from an inferior record.
Next track, Super Jaianto, is even better. Again, more pop-oriented that you might expect, the horns in the chorus give it a warm, human feel, and the jazz breakdown halfway through is life-affirming. At this point, from its uninspiring, self-effacing title downwards, Not Music has no right to be as good as it is.
As Not Music progresses, it struggles to keep the quality quite so high, and the tracks do have a tendency to completely change tack part-way through. This may be endearing or a neat change of pace the first time, but when it’s happening on a large proportion of the songs, it does give them an air of being not quite finished.
The track that really merits mention and praise, though, is album centrepiece, Silver Sands. Interestingly, it’s an extended version of a song of the same name from Chemical Chords, but given room to breathe here, it’s transformed into a ten-minute, Kraftwerk-style epic. In fact, it’s not entirely unlike Autobahn with its analogue burbling, but just as you think you have the measure of the song, it turns into a swaggering funk monster with crackly synths and outer-space sound effects. Whereas many of the songs don’t benefit from such an abrupt alteration of mood, it does nothing but enhance Silver Sands.
Sadly, as well as being the album’s high point, Silver Sands marks the beginning of the decline for Not Music. What would be Side B has little of note; the attempt at building and layering on Two Finger Symphony can’t lift it from slumber and Sun Demon sounds like a Stereolab tribute act. Closing tracks, Pop Molecules (Molecular Pop) and Neon Beanbag, are again related to cuts from Chemical Chords, but they can’t repeat the trick of Silver Sands, with Neon Beanbag in particular being little more than a noisy wig-out.
All of which makes Not Music a very difficult record to assess. At its best, it blows Chemical Chords out of the water but at its worst, it’s uninspiring and dull. Seeing as all the tracks were recorded at the same time, it’s almost impossible to not think of what a great single album Stereolab could have created. A best-of Chemical Chords and Not Music would have fitted neatly into their canon and provided a fitting send-off for an influential and much-loved group. Instead, we have these two separate records plus feelings of confusion and dissatisfaction, like having two starters when you really want a main course. What it does mean, however, is that we have new evidence that fire still burns inside them, and that they may have unfinished business. Not Music is proof enough that a Stereolab return would be something to treasure.