Thursday, January 20, 2011

Stereolab- Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements

One of the great questions that I obsess over is this: why do so many bands mellow as they age? Think about it. They usually start off with innovative, experimental, or otherwise more 'difficult' music, but sooner or later they begin to smooth over the rough edges or eliminate the off-putting elements of their sound. Understand that I'm not making a value judgment here. Accessibility and mellow-ness aren't bad things in and of themselves. It's just that I often feel that the most interesting and enjoyable music by bands inevitably comes from their earlier eras.

So it goes with Stereolab: compare Neon Beanbag to Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements. Even the titles alone are telling, one a kind of retro-kitsch throwaway and the other a clarion call from the underground, abstract and verbose. Now, I do like their newer work quite a lot (including Neon Beanbag) but I also think they lost something over the past few years. True, Stereolab always had easy listening, lounge, and 60s pop music going on in their music, but it was juxtaposed or spliced with experimental music, noise-pop, and druggy krautrock trance inducing rhythms. Yes, as bands continue to exist they must change, especially if they add or lose members. Yet Stereolab's recent keyboard focused, groovy electro-pop style doesn't do as much for me. As with Tortoise's It's All Around You, I can't help but miss some grit or something unexpected. Or anyway, something that will make it not go down so smooth and easy. As luck would have it, the Pitchfork Institute For Music Nerds recently conducted a double-blind study and discovered that 9 out of 10 Stereolab fans recommend Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements for this or similar purposes.

I love Transient Random-Noise Bursts..., which is a hard thing to admit since I once wrote that Stereolab never released a 100% great album. Turns out I just needed to go further back than Emperor Tomato Ketchup, an album which similarly to Neon Beanbag smoothed over and downplayed the band's experimental side. Ironic that this album would be the group's major label debut in the U.S., since it's impossible to imagine even the most 'cool' and 'hip' of record label executives would allow an artist to put out an album like this. It's not even the obvious inclusion of 'Jenny Ondioline' in its full 18 minutes of glory that I refer to, though that would be the major sticking point. It's primarily the way the band perversely refuse to separate their accessible pop side from their druggy/noisy side. What I'm getting at is, if you stripped away the distorted organs, upped the fidelity a bit, and removed the last half of 'Tone Burst', you'd have the kind of song a record executive might go for. Similarly, 'Pack Yr Romantic Mind' may be one of this album's prettier affairs, but it occasionally gives way to brutal guitar chording akin to an early era Pavement song.
There is something thrilling about an album like this, where a band makes music as if no one is paying attention. As always, Stereolab will have your love on their own terms. 'Golden Ball' gets downright ferocious at its climax, enough so that it would likely shock anyone unfamiliar with the band's noisier side. Appropriately enough, the following track, 'Pause', serves as a (relatively) tranquil respite, showcasing the always-gorgeous vocals of Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen, the former of whom almost always sounds to me like what Nico would've sounded like if she had been into weed and French Leftism instead of heroin and austere German nihilism.

Stereolab recently began an indefinite hiatus, meaning I am far more interested in their next album than I otherwise would be if they had stayed together. I hope their time away from each other reinvigorates them to try new things and experiment with their music again. More easy listening grooves wouldn't be a bad thing if done well, I just wish they would bring back their unfettered palette of sounds and styles, allowing songs to drone on for six minutes or collapse into noisy tone bursts. That's the Stereolab I have come to love and would like to hear again. Until then, there's this album to keep sliding into, like a, uh, neon beanbag. While all of Stereolab's albums are worth checking out, few are as thrilling, interesting, and rewarding as Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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