high praise (stereolab pt. 3)

The day in the late 90s I bought Dots & Loops I was really out for the High Llamas’ Gideon Gaye, which – if memory serves – came to my attention because of some reference or the other to Pet Sounds.

(And that sentence may stand as some kind of monument to preciousness.)

I read that High Llamas guiding force Sean O’Hagan contributed to Stereolab, and since I was pretty sure I was gonna like High Llamas I thought I’d try Stereolab as well.

I liked Gideon Gaye a lot, but Dots & Loops floored me and when I have pulled the albums over the years – I tended to grab both together – Dots & Loops got the most play.

However, I have a best-of from High Llamas playing quietly in my office, and it’s more than obvious that O’Hagan was a major, if not the major, force behind Dots & Loops. Parts of the collection sound like out-takes from Dots & Loops, which is a very, very good thing.

The two bands are different, of course, what with High llamas having a male vocalist and a few notes Stereolab doesn’t have –  and vice versa. But they’re really close. I hope that some day someone with expertise revisits these two bands and sees them for what they were – a grand extension and expansion of what started with sunny 60s pop music, and not just a recapitulation of same.

One of the things I rail against is the idea of ‘progress’ in music, which puts a higher priority on what’s new than I think is warranted. We don’t stop writing novels, even great novels, because the form has been thoroughly explored, but we are still in a big hurry to do that with music – from the relatively harmless push for novelty in pop music to the (in my view) terrible desire for different in more intentional musics, like classical or jazz. If Cecil Taylor were looking over my shoulder, I think he’d agree with me: he has constructed an extraordinary personal universe, one well worth spending time visiting, but it’s no more advanced than the work of Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong.

The *real* advance is in what you have to say, and not (and not for a long time) how you say it. Herein lies the cure for that oh-so-clever-yet-exhausted feeling many of us had starting in the 90s, the ‘all that’s left is recombining ideas already circulated’ sense. (I’m avoiding like the plague ‘post modern.’) We thought it was dead after 9/11, but it has taken another few years to work out  how to go on, un-ironically. That’s the real sound of these two bands.


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