my own personal jetpack

These days, the personal jetpack is making a comeback.

It’s on the cover of the new Wired. A book has been written about jetpacks. A commercial for a travel company channels the idea of the jetpack, though the specific iteration is a hovercraft.

(Edit – Ok, I’m wrong. The new Wired has Will Ferrell as time traveler, in a classic, late 50s, early 60s future suit, but no jetpack. But trust me, it’s still all about the jetpack.)

Of course, the jetpack is wildly impractical: in its afterlife in pop culture, it stands in for the larger question – what happened to the future?

The great band Stereolab operated in the same area as jetpacks, at least on the surface.

The phrase ‘anxiety of influence’ was practically invented for Stereolab. From the group’s album covers, which mixed mid-60s bachelor pad cool with psychedelica with 80s d-i-y spirit, to its Godard-meets-Marx lyrics, the band fairly screamed high concept.

Some of the songs were in French. Some had a swaying, bossa nova like beat, others a Velvet Underground drone. Easy listening music was a touchstone. So were those ‘test’ records you could buy for your stereo, the ones that purported to tell you if your woofers and tweeters and such were up to snuff. If you read back to the critics of the era, there is a hint of ‘are these guys more than the sum of their influences?’

More than a decade down the road, the answer is pretty clearly yes.  The pop and politics references are part of the band’s ground floor, but they’re also clever misdirection. Over and over again, the big picture is far less important than the details. Stereolab worked (the band is said to be permanently ‘on hiatus’) from the inside out, from the specific up.

And the end result is? While Stereolab’s sentiments nod in the direction of ‘the future that never was,’  the band’s practice is that of the bricoleur, making what you can from what you have. That’s the real jetpack here – you can’t go to places that never were or will be, but if you know what to scavenge, you can still fly.

(But what, the patient reader finally requests, does it sound like?

If I had to describe the prototypical Stereolab song it would start with organ, bass and drums, and two female voices – a lead and a second voice that is either delightful harmony, or is singing against the lead. (That would be the wonderful Mary Hansen, who was killed in an accident in 2002.) Then add horns or celeste or synthesizer or guitar to taste.

The overall mood: sunny, with a chance of funk. The rest of the feel: propelled. Part of the secret of Stereolab has to be the bass and drums, which push the band along. You feel like you’re in the Concorde on a glorious morning, staring out the window as it takes off for London.

All of the albums I have heard so far are consistently engaging. For starters, I would take Dots & Loops, which is the high point of the bossa nova sound (slightly later albums maybe veer too much into easy listening territory),  Transient Random Noise Bursts With Announcements, which, among other things, has the 18 minute version of the very great ‘Jenny Ondioline’ and ABC Music: The Radio 1 Sessions, which presents songs in somewhat stripped down, closer to ‘live’ versions and – as reviewers have noted – probably gets you closer to what Stereolab was like on stage.

All that said,  the band is prolific – I own maybe a third of the easily obtainable output, so there may be better stuff than the above just waiting for you. And because the band was so good, many albums have fierce partisans – read Amazon for arguments in favor of Emperor Tomato Ketchup and the sublime Mars Audiac Quintet, among others, as Stereolab’s greatest.)

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