Sunday, September 2, 2007

An Appreciation of Stereolab's "Blue Milk"

"Blue Milk" is the 11 and a half minute centerpiece to what I believe to be Stereolab's finest album, "Cobra and Phases Play Voltage in the Milky Night" from 1999. It might be my favorite song of all time.

When I was in high-school I idolized this band and saw them every time they came to Atlanta. I would show up at the venue three or four hours before doors to make sure I got to be front and center (right in front of Mary Hansen.) I saw them play this song three times and each time stimulated and reinforced the part of my brain that wanted to make music - on a stage - live. I could watch a band perform this song for three hours and be ecstatic.

I have collected several live versions of this song and have them at home on my external hard drives. I will post one as soon as i get home.

Live, Laetitia Sadier would play Tim Gane's right-handed fiesta red fender jaguar upside down (she's left-handed) and chime two notes over a squelching analog drone that was kind of creepy and mysterious. Tim and Mary would join in on guitars creating a counter-harmonic two-tone chime that sort of functioned as a fluid chord. The overall impression was that of Cabaret Voltaire circa "Nag Nag Nag" taking eleven minutes of a live set to cover a Terry Riley piano drone. Tim uilized a shurman filterbank that looks like this:

to create this spectral phantom harmonic noise sound that would ebb and flow, creating a totally hypnotic and organic pattern. Then it all explodes into what translated live as a complete cathartic freakout. Most people, I think, remember Stereolab in that era as being "retro-kitsch" or "loungey" or something. I remember them as being capable of melting my teenage mind with the fusion of hypnotic repition and punk rock dynamics (or lack of).

On the recorded version (an edited version of which is presented here) Jim O'rourke captures the creepiness and pop aspects of the song perfectly with distant sounding piano, what sounds like filtered cymbals, and physical tape editing. Gane's filterbank solo is especially well executed. I listened to this song and nothing else for the entire fall of my senior year in high school. I've always wanted write a song as interesting, hypnotic, and dynamic (not to mention creepy, in a kind of Suicide-esqe way.)

Music Critics (fickle as they are) did not respond so well to the song...

NME wrote an infamous review that began with the oh so clever pull-quote "Well, you have to admit they're good at what they do. But then so was Hitler...."

referring specifically to 'Blue Milk': "[It] is the 11-minute artistic centrepiece of this 'work'. We know this because it's the longest and nearly impossible to listen to. It features, innovatively enough, two chords going on and on. They may have some theory that this produces feelings of pleasure in the cerebral cortex. And yet, at the same time you suspect they labour under the laughable delusion that this is in some way pop music"

The response was pretty similar stateside....

from the "taste-makers" at pitchfork:

"Blue Milk," the stultifying fourteen- minute drone which slowly spins in the middle of Cobra and Phases Group Plays Voltage in the Milky Night like a interest- sucking blackhole, brings to mind Michael Snow's 1967 "short" film "Wavelength," in that it soars to new levels of vexation and artistic solipsism. Actually, Stereolab might take this as a compliment, since they named the first track on Dots and Loops after avant- garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, and they evidently lounge around in plastic furniture wearing thick turtlenecks, smoking long- stemmed pipes, and debating the subtle differences between Josef Alberts' blue and yellow paintings.

A slow zoom across a minimally- decorated city loft comprises the entire 45 minutes of "Wavelength." Set to the sound of a constant tone, which gradually increases in pitch, the zoom closes on a framed photograph of ocean waves. This is such a cheeky joke for a supposedly groundbreaking art film. The director drags the viewers through grating boredom to deliver a pun which is obvious from the first frame. Like most avant- garde art, it might have a valid statement, but it's not a process an audience needs to or wants to go through. A brief verbal description would suffice. On Voltage, their eighth LP, Stereolab sink so deep into their socialist cocktail jazz schtick that they typify this flaw. Frigid noodling, insipid harmonies, and unmemorable repetition lazily waft from yawning French- poseurs. Fractions of this soulless wankery might stimulate the academic, but when the album clocks in at nearly twice the length of "Wavelength," it becomes a Herculean test of human attention."

(hey, i figure they post stuff from our blog all the time (for no real reason), i should be able to reprint their writing without permission? right?)

Who is more pretentious? A band following its instincts or the writers who flex their cultural cross-referencing skills for credibility. I wish there were more "pop songs" like Blue Milk. Especially now in the era of Fall Out Boy and Coldplay. I think the closest thing to the aesthetic vibe would be a band like Animal Collective (who have had a similar effect on the same part of my brain upon me seeing them perform "loch raven" for the first time). Animal Collective have been embraced because this is an era in which weirder music seems to be thriving more..

Quick notes because I am running on reserve battery and my charger is in the van....

Tim Gane told me once when I met him that the original version of this song was edited (by cutting and splicing tape the old way) from 35 or 40 minutes to eleven. He gave me the set list on which it is listed as its alternate title "piano mode."

The Double LP of the album features "Blue Milk" as an entire side.. an extended 20-something minute version I've never heard. I have been trying to track the double lp down for ages but I always get outbid at the last second of somebody wants 50 bux for it which I don't have. If anyone among you has the double vinyl version PLEASE record the version of Blue Milk onto a computer and post it so I can space out to it on repeat for hours in the van. I WILL BE ETERNALLY GRATEFUL.

The sun is rising over Baltimore while I type this... listening to the song on repeat over and over. I never get tired of it.

Stereolab - Blue Milk (Edit)