Stereolab Throws Rock Out the Window

That buzzing that’s been circling your ears of late isn’t the slow disintegration of your social conscience nor the ravens readying themselves to feast upon your carcass. Rather, over the last half-decade, a voice has trickled back to us from the ether: the Moog and other analog synthesizers, failed re-creators of orchestral pomp, have been slowly seeping back into alt-pop after a long down period.

In the big leagues, Stereolab is no doubt the best known of the New Moog Doodlers, and their new album, Dots and Loops (Elektra), shows they’ve got a few more tricks up their collective sleeve, as far as “sound generating and filtering” goes. But the Moog’s reach is wide. You hear it in gangster rap (post-Dr. Dre’s The Chronic ); indie rockers (Portastatic); New Wave reactionaries (the Pulsars), ironicists (Doktor Kosmos), and in-between types (Trans Am); nouveau lounge acts (Sukia); prog rockers (Tortoise); new old-school soulsters (Maxwell); and, of course, those Electronicats, many of whom seem to prefer the old technology to the new. I won’t even get into such areas of pathology as New Age, Germans, et al.

Stranger still, the past couple of years have brought us a slew of reissues that would have been deemed unlistenable or, for a variety of reasons, beneath kitsch at the turn of the decade: Dick Hyman’s “classic” 1969 Moog LP, recordings by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Beaver & Krause, über-Frenchmen Jean-Jacques Perrey and Jean-Michel Jarre (Question: Who is the market for a new Jarre release?), and, oh yeah, that “Da-Da-Da” song in the Volkswagen ad. This, in and of itself, is slightly old news. Grand Royal went into thorough and entertaining surface detail on the subject several months ago, but their it’s-all-good-when-you-use-Dad’s-credit-card approach doesn’t do much to explain the reasons behind the appeal.

In its first go-round of pop popularity in the early 1970’s, the Moog’s appeal was evident. It burbled, burped and was helpful in a pinch if you couldn’t hire the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra to go on tour with you. Nowadays, it’s the postmodern alchemist’s dream: music from nothing more than the mechanics of sound-something from nothing.

The 80’s revival has never really taken off (a few of the aforementioned bands to the contrary) because the 90’s themselves are so open to parody-the false corporate happyspeak, the sci-fi libertarianism pounded into us by our television sets, the designer fashion mummifying toddlers. The analog synthesizer, however, hails from a time when the concept of progress was not a laughable one, or cynically bandied about. Many of the New Moog Doodlers possess a nostalgia for a melancholic idea of progress they were too young to experience but may have heard about in filmstrips shown in nursery school. The sound of the Moog is make-believe and so are its histories. Because the Moog is considerably more historically free than, say, a talking drum from Africa, it can be utilized in an endless number of fake settings. Seventies funk? Sure. Art rock? Of course. French pop? No doubt. Dada? Yep.

Stereolab has taken this kind of fantastic nostalgia to the point of radicalism. There will always be people like Stereolab who have no interest in stardom for its own sake, and they will be considered increasingly curious as time passes. The synthesizer itself reduces the instrumentalists’ identity, assuming you don’t want to twirl through the air à la Keith Emerson or shave a swath down the middle of your head like an idiot. But Stereolab isn’t merely a synth band. In fact, on Dots and Loops it isn’t even a band, as the album is stitched together from samples of the group playing together and then digitally stretched into whole songs. It’s Ur-Stereolab. (Then again, with today’s technological considerations, is there really any difference between a remix LP and a “real” one except for the minor consideration of pleasure?)

As a band, Stereolab has preferred role-playing games: Velvet Underground on Transient Random Noise Bursts , Canterbury art hippies on Mars Audiac Quintet , blaxsploitation porn stars on Emperor Tomato Ketchup . This time, on Dots and Loops , they dissipate into the air altogether; guitars are pretty much out of the picture. It’s an unholy alliance between lounge music and prog rock-lo-fi coeds going high society. Indeed, they are no longer a rock band. It’s a pleasing experiment-one I hope they don’t repeat. Many are comparing it to French pop, but, again, this is just an imagined France; French pop is much more brusque and tasteless. Stereolab has always failed at tastelessness, and that’s what saves them from pure progginess. Of course, it also explains why they have never been able to break in the United States.

Still, Dots and Loops is the closest a hipster band has come to progressive rock yet. There’s even a 17-minute multipart centerpiece, “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse.” Just three years ago, this record would have been considered unlistenable in the circles that will now embrace it. So, on this LP, when they are a band-not just a bunch of dots and loops-they take on the guise of Tortoise, who sound as if they are all over this record, to difficult effect.

Tortoise drummer John McEntire produced much of Dots , as he did last year’s Ketchup . (Some tracks are credited to Dusseldorf’s Mouse on Mars, a German techno group popular with the indie crowd.) As with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, he gives them class and they give him sex. At least, that’s the idea, only Stereolab has plenty of class. Tortoise is a band that sounds better on paper. The band once held a lot of promise-and still does, in a zip-lock bag. There’s no air, no humanity. You can smell their sound on such tunes as “Brakhage,” which starts with 30 seconds of rip-snorting electrobounce before devolving into the faux gentle heart of a one-note samba, where unabashed emotionalism is subordinated to the functionalism of the dance floor. It’s not music that makes you want to dance, it’s just music that makes you dance.

Despite the electronic body-music, Laetitia Sadier’s lyrics have taken on an increasingly spiritual bent, just as another leftist band Gang of Four’s did as they aged. On “The Flower Called Nowhere,” the kitschy vocal bursts hold an honest ecstasy, not unlike Jon Anderson’s on Yes’ “Roundabout.” Which other band mixes Yes with Gang of Four? When Marxists make money, they seem to get God. Like all fans of analog, Stereolab is trying to synthesize its flesh away, wishing to become transcendent, abstract.

I suggest that Stereolab and the aforementioned Moog bands pick up Basta’s recent release of Raymond Scott’s Soothing Sounds for Baby . Scott, now finally getting his due for Carl Stalling’s arrangements of his music for Looney Toons cartoons, became an electronic music aficionado in his later years and recorded these functional LPs for Epic in the early 60’s. Soothing Sounds properly aligns the false hopefulness of an infant with the synth promise of a faux future. (It should be noted that Epic released Mr. Jarre’s new record, but left Soothing Sounds for the Netherlanders at Basta to put out.)

Scott’s sounds were prescient-timeless, like infanthood-and no less sophisticated than Mr. Jarre’s Moog doodling. Like us, Scott’s baby crawls on all fours, but it moves forward. When it grows up, it can play make-believe, trying on its parents’ vintage clothes like Stereolab. But let’s hope it doesn’t forget where it came from.

Now Hear This

Stereolab always has side projects out. They are poor but happy. Former group member Sean O’Hagan, who plays and arranges on Dots , has his own band, the High Llamas, whose Hawaii (V2) has finally been released in the United States, along with an EP of older material. It sounds a lot like the Beach Boys, making the High Llamas a sort of novelty act, but a good and ingenious one. Turn On (Drag City), a side project by Mr. O’Hagan and Stereolab leader Tim Gane, channels the noise that’s been absent from recent ‘Lab releases.