Catch a wave

The only difference between Pet Sounds and Stereolab is a mere 30 years

Speaking to England's New Musical Express earlier this year, Stereolab mastermind Tim Gane announced that the Beach Boys is his favorite band. It was an unequivocal claim--"It all sounds brilliant," he insisted--even if it didn't make much sense at first. After all, Stereolab--which is fronted by a Brit (Gane) and his Paris-born girlfriend Laetitia Sadier--are harbingers of an ambient-rock-cocktail-jazz scene born in the stereophonic experiments of the 1950s and '60s; the group's lyrics are often pointedly political (Marxist, for the most part) when comprehensible at all; and Stereolab's idea of a melody is one that unfolds over the course of six minutes instead of six seconds.

Yet just underneath the surface, Gane's claims make perfect sense: Stereolab is the '90s counterpart to the Beach Boys--a band that subverts the pop form, that holds its breath in the deep end while its contemporaries prefer to play Marco Polo in the shallow end. If one were to pay no attention to the music of Stereolab--if it were allowed to become aural wallpaper hung in a space-age bachelor pad, ignored during cocktails instead of studied--then it's rather catchy, fun, deceptively insignificant; ambient and ethereal on the surface, it doesn't provide any "instant" pleasures.

Stereolab's eight albums, released during the past five years (the most recent being Emperor Tomato Ketchup), build to a more-complete moment, much like those of the Beach Boys; there's a twinge of instant gratification, but the enjoyment comes during the long haul. Songs like "Golden Ball" and "Jenny Ondioline" off 1993's Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements, "Wow and Flutter" and "Ping Pong" off 1994's Mars Audiac Quintet, and "Cybele's Reverie" and "Motoroller Scalatron" off Emperor Tomato Ketchup are equally dry and funky, distant and warm; they're every bit as retro as an old Esquivel record and every bit as modern as, say, a Tricky dance single. It's the end of rock and the beginning of rock, the sound of a space-age future heard through a transistor radio.

Like Beach Boy architect Brian Wilson, Gane subscribes to the idea that music is not merely a collection of melodies, but a melange of sound--the silences between notes, the way notes blend into one another, the notion that pop music exists on so many different levels that you can never get to the center of a "pop" song. One need only listen to Pet Sounds, the 1966 album that forever reshaped musicians' ideas about pop music--the one album that proved simplicity could be damned complex--to discover where the similarities collide.

"What [the Beach Boys] were doing works on so many levels--naturally and organically," Gane told NME. "First of all, you get the catchy songs, and then you hear the wonderful interaction of the instruments and the voices--the wonderful sounds. Then there's the sadness and melancholy. It opens up and up and up from what appears to be a simple song. And that's my goal, really, to make something so many levels."

On the eve of the mid-June release of a four-CD boxed set commemorating Pet Sounds--imagine, four discs and two enclosed books celebrating one damned 30-year-old record!--it's interesting to find Wilson's legacy living on in a group often pegged as being a "minimalist pop" band crossed with the Krautrockers of the '70s (Neu! and Can) and the stereo pioneers of the '50s (Esquivel, Les Baxter).

Gane and Sadier often bring up the Beach Boys during interviews--including one with the Observer a couple of weeks ago--if only to stress the point that their music doesn't set a precedent or exist on a fringe; they're part of the same continuum, exploring the same terrain with a slightly better understanding of their surroundings. It has often been said that most musicians have been trying to catch up with Pet Sounds for three decades, and while such artists as Stephin Merritt (of the 6ths and Magnetic Fields) and Eric Matthews (of Cardinal) have utilized the concept of lush pop music, only Stereolab has managed to perfect its execution.

Stereolab and the Beach Boys are bubblegum on their outermost layers and avant-garde at their cores, which makes the in-between that much more fascinating in the end. Whether you're listening to the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" or Stereolab's "International Colouring Contest," you're never quite sure what's being played, what instrument makes that noise. It might be an organ or a guitar, maybe even a human voice filtered through cupped hands. The song might be beautiful, maybe even catchy, but it's not so easy. The Beach Boys sing, "God only knows what I'd be without you," over a bed of strings; Sadier breathlessly drones on and on about capitalist-rendered destruction over a peppy dance beat. Only then do you realize this is music meant to provoke even when it's pleasant, meant to disturb even when it gets lost in its own opulent delights.

"In the '80s and throughout so much of the '90s, everything must be transparent," Sadier tells the Observer. "You must be able to see through everything. Reality is not like that. On the contrary, it's important to have solid walls, to have a kind of secret garden somewhere. You must have layers, have levels of things. You have to find out for yourself. No one can give it to you and say, 'Well, on level No. 3...'

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