Catch a wave
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...'
"It's something you have to feel yourself and explore yourself. That's kind of the same idea with the Beach Boys. They're incredibly into levels. It can be incredibly simple, but it can also be so twisted--for the better," she adds, laughing.
Brian Wilson often said he didn't just write music, but he would play "feels": "Feels are musical ideas, riffs, bridges, fragments of themes...a phrase here and there," he once explained. "I wanted to write a song containing more than one level...A song can, for instance, have movements, in the same way as a classical concerto, only capsulized." This is why the boxed set is, in the end, such a brilliant piece of work: It not only features Pet Sounds in its entirety (twice, actually, in the original mono mix and a new true-stereo presentation), but it also breaks down every song into significant tiny piece.
Spread over the course of the four discs are various backing tracks with and without guitars or drums, without vocals, with nothing but vocals, with dissonant noise preceding final takes; it's the aural equivalent of a how-to manual, a jigsaw puzzle with the assembly instructions included for reference. And though it might be written off as nothing but a textbook for musicians and minutiae for fanatics, the box actually serves a noble purpose: It allows you into the mind of a mad genius for a moment and lets you ramble around in the dark.
Instead of seeming like incomplete pieces of music, the instrumental session tracks are songs unto themselves--as lush, as beautiful, and even as disturbing as their "completed" counterparts. When Wilson gets the musicians to run through the "Wouldn't it Be Nice" backing track, you can't tell the instruments apart; the accordion and tack piano and saxophones and trumpets blend into one complete sound. As Wilson cautions of the song in the liner notes: "Listen for the rockin' accordions...also, listen for the ethereal guitars in the introduction."
Where Wilson employed many background vocals on the early Beach Boys hits--"Fun, Fun, Fun," "Surfin' U.S.A.," "I Get Around," and so on--for Pet Sounds he pretty much limited the vocals to the foreground; he decided instead to let the instruments fill in the blank spaces, to let the violins and organs provide the harmonies. That's why the vocalless songs seem so complete: They were written before the lyrics, for the most part, and recorded almost as orchestral wholes over which the words would be placed later--sometimes much later.
To look at the personnel on the Pet Sounds session dates is to finally understand how finely detailed and complex this deceptively simple music was: Eighteen musicians played on "God Only Knows"--and two of them on accordion--and that doesn't even include the Beach Boys, who were on tour in Europe when Brian recorded a bulk of the record. Wilson was taking Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" theory to its final conclusion, and Pet Sounds was Wilson's first real attempt to "experiment with sounds," as he writes in the boxed set's liner notes.
He had heard the Beatles' Rubber Soul and was at once impressed and angry--impressed that a so-called "pop" band could suddenly go "folk" with such astonishing results, angry that he was being left behind in the race to reinvent the new rock-and-roll form. He refers to Rubber Soul as a challenge, but it was likely more of a threat: Wilson, quite simply, didn't want to fail. Appropriately, the Beatles would then use Pet Sounds as the inspiration for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the full circle becoming a knot.
It's hard, in retrospect, to understand how Pet Sounds must have seemed within the context of 1966, when pop music was still dominated by the likes of Herb Alpert, the Monkees, Nancy and Frank Sinatra, and the soundtracks to Doctor Zhivago and The Sound of Music. Perhaps it's not too different now hearing Stereolab alongside Pearl Jam and Hootie and the Blowfish. Pop music always takes one step forward, then falls off the stage.
"There's this band we played with--I won't mention their name--and they're a pop band, and there was no relief, there was no depth to their music," Sadier says. "They were serving up this category of 'pop music' as an institution, and it just made for very poor music. It didn't have any richness in it...There are a lot of things you do with your own instinct, and I think there's no point in trying to dissect it and trying to find out exactly what's going on. I don't think that Brian Wilson and his Beach Boys were dissecting every move, every step they took in the studio. They just did it.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.