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Not Music
Drag City
Format: CD / 2LP / MP3
Release Date: November 16, 2010
By Michael Snyder May 25, 2011

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ve been reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

Veteran indie stylists Stereolab are going on hiatus for a while to take a much-deserved rest and pursue other projects after almost two decades of tours and myriad albums, EPs, singles, and compilations, some of them true contemporary classics. Not Music is a very good way to close this long first phase for the cult favorites. Though not among Stereolab’s top three long-players, Not Music is a strong, appealing album with some impressive, streamlined, retro-futuristic creations.

Recorded during the same sessions yielding their brilliant, Motown-inflected Chemical Chords (4AD, 2008), these tracks are by no means leftovers. This is a strong complementary album, apparently informally referred to as Chemical Chords 2 before taking its current title. Reinforcing this connection is a “part 2” of “Molecular Pop” and a radically different, atmospheric Atlas Sound (Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox) remix of “Neon Beanbag,” which opens Chemical Chords. No Odds and Sods, Not Music is rather more like Amnesiac (Capitol, 2001) to its predecessor’s Kid A (Capitol, 2000), harkening to their contemporaries Radiohead.

Stereolab beguiles throughout this album with fascinating rhythms, drawing listeners into their suave, smart sonic world. The drumming is superb throughout, sometimes adding a spirited funkiness to the politicized, theorized, Space Age laboratory of sound. Xylophones, analogue synthesizers burbling and chirping, hypnotic minimalism, beautiful vocal harmonies and leads by Laetitia Sadier (who has recently released a solo album called The Trip and provides guest vocals to a track on Deerhunter’s excellent Halcyon Days album), and unusual time signatures all find their way into Not Music. Insistent, minimalist, perky piano marks the memorable “Two Finger Symphony.” Its production values, using vibraphone, wavering, trebly guitar tonalities, and spirited allegro keyboard quarter-note chords, recall the creative flair of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys from 1965 to 1970, including their classic LPs Beach Boys Today!,  Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile, which substituted for the unfinished Smile, and Sunflower. Songs bearing this influence can be compared to The High Llamas but are more rhythmically charged. What might mark this album most strongly, however, is how it delves into late 1970s and early 1980s synthesizer sounds, sometimes Computer World (Warner Bros., 1981) embellishments recalling the mighty Kraftwerk or even some moments from the Pet Shop Boys’ debut Please (Parlophone, 1986). “Silver Sands,” epically running over 10 minutes, uses a motorik beat (you knew that word would appear in here somewhere) recalling “Autobahn” or old Tangerine Dream, modulating into a electro groove recalling Giorgio Morodor productions (e.g. Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”), and pulls off the ambitious feat of maintaining interest over this length.

Thus Stereolab continues to innovate while maintaining aspects of their classic mélange of the hip, melodious, entrancing, and rhythmic.  The insistent and concise “Sun Demon” stands out as evidence of the band retaining its innovation and drive. “Everybody’s Weird Except Me” is winsome and winning, with background vocals seemingly being run through a Leslie speaker to produce a warbly effect. While Not Music isn’t their best album, the disc’s an enjoyable and strong Stereolab release. At this point, we can take stock and reinvestigate the band’s prolific output from the last two decades while Stereolab chills in their respective Space Age Bachelor Pads for a spell.

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