The gloriously expanded sound world of popular music that opened up in the 1980s and has continued to this very day is both an opportunity and a restriction for contemporary musicians.
To make music that sounds fresh today when so much ground has already been covered requires a far more developed sense of musicality than was necessary in the past. Previously, ploughing a genre furrow was enough – the style itself was fresh enough to sustain interest. That’s no longer the case. To succeed today requires different skills; the ability to pull the essence out of well-worn forms and weave a new fabric. This is a tough challenge. Personally, I believe this has pushed the sheer artistry of the best new pop music to even higher levels than we’ve seen before. Sadly I don’t think this is recognized, particularly by members of my generation (late 50’s baby-boom) many of whom remain solidly wedded to the past.
All of which is a preamble to an appreciation of one of my favorite late 20th century bands, Stereolab.
In many ways Stereolab’s music echoes that of Adam Faith recorded 35 years earlier – it is pop music, solidly constructed and seemingly unchallenging, but nonetheless individual and subversive in its own way. Rooting their sound in the German progressive bands of the 1970s such a Can, with elements of the British Canterbury art rock scene (Soft Machine in particular) thrown in for good measure, Stereolab nonetheless almost completely eshew the aesthetic of that period. Instead a solidly 1960s lounge groove is embraced, complete with singsong vocals and muzak-derived harmonies. However these are totally transformed by the repetitive, minimalist, treatment that they get. The result is unique. Rarely is a band more distinctly defined by its sound. I love it.