When Tortoise first came to indie-scene prominence with its second album, 1996’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die, much of the hype revolved around the fact that the Chicago outfit didn’t employ a singer. Oldham’s presence marks a break with that instrumental orthodoxy. Are we to take Tortoise’s decision to attach a human face to its future-dub tone poetry as an acknowledgment that the time for postrock’s dispassionate experimentalism has come and gone? That in an uncertain world people crave songs sung by someone about something?
More likely, the partnership simply nods to the notion that we’re no longer living in a postrock world—we’re living in a post-everything one. The iTunes era has made decades’ worth of musical development available for instant examination and interpretation, a shift whose significance can’t be overstated in discussions of artistic mutations that used to take place slowly and locally. On “Shooter,” a cut from Lil Wayne’s recent Tha Carter II, the New Orleans rapper “remakes” a song by R&B singer Robin Thicke by using it almost wholesale, adding a new layer of meaning to a song that Thicke himself only released in 2003. Compared to that kind of accelerated content crunching, having two bass players (like Tortoise) and no words (like Tortoise) doesn’t quite deliver the shock of the new.
There’s certainly very little that’s shocking on the new Stereolab CD, Fab Four Suture (Too Pure). Once a sort of sister band to Tortoise (whose John McEntire has produced and engineered for the group), Stereolab spent the ’90s tricking out supermelodic lounge-pop ditties with complicated drum sounds and intergalactic keyboard slime. On great albums such as 1997’s Dots and Loops, these French and English ladies and gentlemen crafted a workable model of the postrock machine, one in which novelty and familiarity fueled each other in perpetuity.
Turns out it worked pretty well—Stereolab has been remaking the same album since. (Take that, Lil Wayne.) It’s a good one: Few bands have nailed a sound as instantly identifiable as Stereolab’s, and fewer still have adhered to it for as long. In recent years, following the divorce of bandleaders Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier and the 2002 death of keyboardist-singer Mary Hansen, the group has clung to the template like a sort of security blanket, a job the chewy, cheery music sounds particularly well suited to.
Still, signs of stasis have begun to creep in, further evidence that the bloom is off postrock’s rose. Much of the music on Fab Four Suture—the latest in a long line of perfect Stereolab titles including “Captain Easychord” and “John Cage Bubblegum”—plays like a retrenchment into form. You won’t likely hear juicier keyboards or more meticulously arranged backing vocals this year. But with a few exceptions—such as the swinging Austin Powers tribute “Interlock”—those sounds never cohere into actual songs.
That may be an unfair criticism, since a primary tenet of postrock’s original charter was liberation from the shackles of conventional songcraft. (In addition, Suture’s 12 tracks were originally released as a series of six limited-edition seven-inch vinyl singles, a format that serves them better.) Yet, previously Stereolab has managed to make pop with atypical tools; this time it’s tempting to second Sadier’s emotion when she sings, “What good is all this knowledge we’ve acquired?”
It’s a question the members of Mogwai should consider asking themselves. These Scottish lads were postrock’s original bad boys, Britpop reactionaries committed to loud-louder-loudest soundscapes that took postrock’s textural obsession as an excuse to shred amps and eardrums. Yet lately Mogwai has focused on trying to out-atmosphere Icelandic followers Sigur Rós; the band’s recent stuff doesn’t do what pop songs do, but it doesn’t make volume its own reward, either.
There are a few gestures toward the band’s old loud-and-proud aesthetic on the new Mr. Beast (Matador), Mogwai’s fifth studio album. “Glasgow Mega-snake” (proof that these guys possess some of Stereolab’s knack for titles) builds to a massive crescendo that dances on the edge of chaos without tipping over into random noise. And “Folk Death 95” lays out some terrifically acid-damaged wah-wah action.
But most of Mr. Beast sounds like the soundtrack to a Discovery Channel documentary charting the time-lapse decay of a dead rabbit. There are purposefully picked guitar arpeggios, tinkly piano melodies, and codeine-drowsy drumbeats that don’t keep rhythm so much as taunt it. In its heyday, postrock found a way to question rock’s fundamentals without being dull about it. A decade later, Mr. Beast makes it too easy for throwback pop fans to mock postrock’s supposed wisdom in doing away with all of music’s interesting bits.
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