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Back to the Background

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Stereolab

Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night

(Elektra)

By Jim Dorling

Days passed without the appearance of Physical Graffiti. Then the first shipment arrived late one Thursday. The fans descended on Marty's Records downstairs from CREEM like dragonflies, clustered around the cash register, furtively clutching the album to their heaving bosoms, slobbering and drooling down the shrinkwrap. Worried parents contemplated a vaccine, but once Physical Graffiti touched the turntables the mysterious malady subsided. The stricken nodules were lulled into a state of tympanic euphoria.

Stereolab's seventh CD, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, hit the shelves a few weeks ago, but things seemed pretty much under control. Times have changed since Jaan Uhelszki reviewed Led Zeppelin's sixth album for the May 1975 issue of Creem. To put it bluntly, rock is dead, and has been since the demise of the long-playing vinyl record.

Before rock, the LP was primarily marketed to adults, offering them programs of mood music--the kind of stuff Stereolab loves to play with. In the 60s records were stacked six deep on the spindles of record changers, providing hours of uninterrupted background music for cocktail parties. But album-oriented rock found a younger, larger, and more enthusiastic market for LPs, and by the end of the decade bands like the Who and the Kinks, who'd come up on the strength of singles, became genuine rock stars by concentrating on producing coherent albums. Zeppelin, just starting out at the time, would go on to produce five number one LPs, but their most famous song, "Stairway to Heaven," was never even released as a single. By 1975, manual turntable sales were increasing at four times the rate of record changer sales, according to a Pioneer ad that ran in Crawdaddy! at the time. The rock generation was distinguishing itself by sitting down and listening to records with the sort of attention normally reserved for television or film.

How many kids in the 70s spun the latest Zeppelin, Floyd, or Stones while poring over the gatefold sleeve, maybe separating seeds and stems from their $35-an-ounce weed on its generous surface while the TV flickered mutely in the corner? In this humid little terrarium of pre-MTV existence, rock music for a brief while had a captive audience. Sure, there were accessories--posters, black lights and strobe lights, incense--but the atmosphere hinged on the album spinning on the turntable, and had to be delicately and purposefully reinstated when side one was up. In the 70s rock fans were, in the words of the Pioneer ad, "involved with the sound...and with [their] equipment."

Within the last year, according to the Consumer Electronics Manufacturing Association, CD players that can hold a hundred or more discs have seen an 80 percent rise in sales. Mass-market retailers like Circuit City and Best Buy have stopped carrying single-play CD decks altogether, but they'll sell you a 200-CD changer for as little as $138. This invention does the old record changer one better, providing access to more than a week of uninterrupted background music at the push of a button. If the manual turntable was the pinnacle from which the rock stars ruled their bongwater-soaked empire, the "megachanger" is the elysian fields where they're sent when they die. Like the archival box set, the CD changer is more about accumulation and convenience than it is about listening. Alternative rock, the first wave of popular music launched in the age of the CD, petered out because rock music (alternative or not) is foreground music and the manual turntable is the foreground player. The CD player, even the single-play kind, with its discreet little drawer and obscured mechanics, is as much a background player as those 60s consoles that closed to double as buffets. And with its ongoing evolution the public seems to have come back around to the idea of music as lifestyle accessory, for which the steady grooves of hip-hop and electronic dance music are far better suited.

No pop group sounds more at home in this context than Stereolab, which has been associated with the phrase "space-age bachelor-pad music" since at least 1993--though ironically the band members are notorious record obsessives. The group's name was lifted from a series of hi-fi records issued in the late 50s by the Vanguard label. The title of the third cut on Cobra, "The Free Design," pays homage to an obscure, saccharine vocal group of the 60s whose harmonies at times bear a striking resemblance to Stereolab's. Stereolab expresses its vinyl fetish by releasing its music on the LP format (often with geeky extra attention to packaging detail, like colored vinyl or gorgeous gatefold sleeves) and issuing 45s and even ten-inch EPs both between albums and in promotion of them. But these are often limited editions, and CD sales almost certainly must compensate for the expense.

In David Toop's latest book, Exotica (reviewed in these pages last month), he writes of how one can find "daring ideas disguised as cocktail froth" in the work of bachelor-pad-music czar Les Baxter. So let's say you take the bait, rush out and buy the definitive Baxter two-CD set, and throw the discs in the changer along with the new Stereolab, some Mouse on Mars, and maybe last year's Free Design compilation Kites Are Fun. Damned if it doesn't all turn to cocktail froth once you hit the puree button on your 200-CD Cuisinart. Toop, like the members of Stereolab, is a throwback, a music freak, and therefore way out of step with the times. He probably owns all Les Baxter's records on vinyl and plays them on some incredible turntable that looks like it belongs in the Museum of Modern Art and thinks to himself, "Damn! This is Frippertronics 30 years before Fripp!" In the 70s critics listened with the audience; today they listen for the audience.

Critics like Stereolab in part because they recognize them as kindred spirits. They hail the band for revealing the hidden connections between Krautrock and Martin Denny, subversively foregrounding music once assigned to the background. The assumption at work here is that Stereolab exists on the same level as its experimentally minded heroes, but the truth is that Kraftwerk's Autobahn and Can's Tago Mago had their moment on the turntable, while Cobra will go straight from the new releases section into the CD jukebox along with all the other aural detritus of the late-20th century. It's not "background music"--it's just background music. Stereolab, along with Free Design and Les Baxter, belongs to a sort of underground history of music makers who are free to please themselves as long as they provide serviceable atmosphere for a public that's barely listening--like Kafka's hunger artist, who reaches the peak of his craft when no one is watching anymore.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Cowlard.

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