One of the many great things about Stereolab is the way their album titles always manage to describe the contents of the disc; Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements, Chemical Chords and Fab Four Suture are all basically different terms for ‘easy-listening-kraut-yé-yé-indiepop’, or whatever it is you could call Stereolab, while Refried Ectoplasm remains a fantastic way to entitle a compilation of rarities and b-sides, that also happens to be their most accessible release. So what to make of Snot…sorry, NOT Music (damn that wonderful, if poorly laid-out, artwork)? An uncharacteristically petulant farewell, or perhaps a mere crisis of faith? Well, following on the heels of the poppy Chemical Chords, one of the more fully-formed examples of their acid lounge sound, and frontwoman Laetitia Sadier’s uncharacteristically personal The Trip – a record that excavates the same kinds of demons as Steve Mason’s blissful Boys Outside – this LP can only come as something of a disappointment.
Sure, there are typically lysergic flashes of brilliance; wonderfully-titled opener ‘Everybody’s Weird Except Me’ is vintage Labpop, all pinging pianos and a string of weird and exotic noises gurgling away in the background, and ‘Two Finger Symphony’ sounds like a blissed-out baggy rewrite of Bill Withers’ ‘Lovely Day’. This, by the way, is a Very Good Thing. Meanwhile, the keening ‘Aelita’ could have been right at home on The Trip, a lush waltz which suddenly gives way to a dreamy minor-chord shuffle, and ‘So Is Cardboard Clouds’ mixes jazzy organs with skittering drums and bone-dry xylophones to create one of the album’s moodier moments – at least, until it reaches its brass-driven Steve Reich-gone-Motown climax.
Sadly, the majority of the album bursts with opportunities missed and ambitions overstretched, more so than on most other Stereolab record. The propulsive instrumental ‘Equivalences’ would have easily been the record’s best song had Sadier’s Gallic purr made an appearance at any point, but instead seems more like a throwaway in need of a hook; meanwhile, Chemical Chords‘ enchantingly bouncy highlight ‘Silver Sands’ gets needlessly remixed into the album’s regrettable ten-minute centrepiece, with all the joy of the original sucked out into a clichéd (at least by Stereolab’s eclectic standards) electrokraut bore. The problem is Not Music‘s propensity to grate and drag, with the album’s best ideas getting shunned mid-song for mediocre ones.
Admittedly, the band’s declaration of a hiatus – as opposed to a full-blown split – would suggest that at some point, there could be a comeback; in all honesty, it may be a more satisfying way to end their career than with an eight-minute ambient reworking of ‘Neon Beanbag’ by Atlas Sound. It’s a fascinating listen, as anything Bradford Cox touches tends to be, but there’s no getting around the fact that, for a band have made their career through reappropriating other peoples’ music, to allow someone to do that to their own work as the final track on what may be their last album seems like a cop out. For a frustrating half of Not Music, Stereolab sound…well…Not Bothered; ‘Delugioisie’ seems cuts right to the core of the album’s problem – “We’re so stressed out and unhappy.” Maybe a break will do them good.