If asked by some totalitarian regime—perhaps Jann Wenner’s Diplopian Party seizing power in a mirthless coup—to name three albums I would prefer not to live without, I would not name a single one of my favorite rock albums by Kings of Leon, AC/DC, Radiohead, and so on. I can only listen to these at selected moments. Sometimes they’re screechy and irritating.
I started thinking about this question last night when the soundtrack to “Jefferson in Paris” ended. Seeing the Merchant-Ivory film in 1995, I was sufficiently stirred by the score to have gone out and bought the CD. It’s an interesting blend of original compositions by Richard Robbins and choice period selections by David Bahanovich. While one critic called the movie “prigs in wigs,” the music is altogether another matter, deeply evocative and endlessly rich. In the liner notes, Robbins refers to having “felt a sense of continuity and tension through historical perspective.” All I know is that I always feel pierced, and during the fourteen years of owning this disk, there has never been a period of more than a few weeks when it hasn’t been played.
Afterward I fed into the CD player another enduring favorite, the High Llamas’ “Cold and Bouncy.” From the first time I heard the bizarre opener, “Twisto Teck,” I’ve never known how to classify this 1998 release and have never bothered to do much investigation into the group’s story. I just know that I like the warm melodies and light voices. The words have never made too much sense to me:
The fading charm,
The broken calm
The drill bell carries on
The failing links,
The power sinks
The moment passed,
(Here it must be confessed that when it comes to lyrics I just like to know I’m on the Highway to Hell and Purple Haze is in my brain.)
Nevertheless, I like how the arrangements include strings, horns, marimbas, and wacky synthesizer sounds, ranging from outright bubbling that would thrill the Champagne Music Maker, to a particular rhythmic sequence that always provokes me to insert my own lyrics: “His name is Marshall Faulk, his name is Marshall Faulk, his name is Marshall Faulk.” I think this music might have been composed to entertain the astronauts in their moon lander.
The High Llamas represent the perfection of 1960s pop—cheese properly aged for more than thirty years—but as someone noted, you occasionally long for them to “shift up a gear.” Whenever I have that longing, I throw on Stereolab’s “Emperor Tomato Ketchup,” from 1996.
A fair amount of cross-pollination exists between the Llamas and Stereolab. For example, high Llama Sean O’Hagan gets credit for string arrangements on “Ketchup,” and Marcus Holdaway, another Llama, plays some of those strings. Meanwhile, Stereolab uses its arsenal of synthesizers, organs and standard rock-combo instruments to a much different effect. This music shimmers, but it also throbs and makes you remember your booty. The title track, in particular, grinds away shamelessly. Lyrics, when in English (some are sung in French) tend toward slogans like “Stigmatization is something we can fight,” but Laetitia Sadier sings them most seductively in her crystal soprano.
The band’s site mentions “Ketchup” ranking number 51 on Amazon’s 100 Greatest Indie Rock Albums of All Time. I know that, like the others mentioned above, I couldn’t be without it.