Sunday, October 28, 2007

Stereolab - Diagonals

Stereolab - "Diagonals"

re: dissolving friendships

I first heard "Diagonals" on New Year's Eve in 1997. I was out in the early afternoon at Borders, looking to spend some Christmas money on a new CD. Dots and Loops was on one of the listening stations. I'd read a few interesting things about Stereolab and knew they were friends with Sonic Youth, so I slipped the dirty headphones on my head and hit play. Standing by a rack of CDs surrounded by other customers and listening through a pair of cheap, torn-up Koss headphones doesn't make for a deep, intensive record-sampling experience, so I didn't listen to more than a few minutes of the first few tracks before skipping to "Diagonals," though I'm sure I liked them. I mean, I bought the album that afternoon.

Those drums... I don't know if they're spat out from a drum machine, or sampled from a real kit and and then chopped up into this mutated, impossible form. I suppose it doesn't matter. I can't explain in musical terms just what's happening here, the way that the beat seems to roll up on itself and collapse at the end of each bar. Nor can I overstate how much it fucked with my head at the time, and how much I wanted to share it with everyone else. I've already bitched and complained here about my friends' exclusive devotion to Christian rock of the Audio Adrenaline/Third Day-variety, which I won't dwell on any further for now, suffice to say that I shouldn't really have expected any of them to immediately take to Stereolab's Krautrock-meets-exotica-meets-dub sound. Somehow, I still had faith in them.

This was a few hours before the New Year's Eve party that I was supposed to go to. It wasn't so much a real party as an adult-supervised, church-sponsored youth group event with games and free snacks. I was dreading going but seeing how all my friends would be there, I didn't have much of a choice. I don't remember very much of it other than the youth pastor's basement, the burgundy-colored paint on the walls, and the weight bench that I used as a chair while eating cookies. Later, a few of us snuck back up to the living room and poured candle wax all over our hands, laughing as the rest of the group downstairs played some cheesy game that I wanted no part of. My friends usually fed off these kind of activities, the kind of youth group-approved bullshit that would always bring out the worst in everyone, turning all the girls into giggling, braindead zombies and all the guys into competitive assholes vying for everyone's attention. So anyway, what a rare occurrence it was for any of them to willingly retreat from such a scene, especially Brian and his friend Mike, of all people. We drank Coke and took turns dipping our fingers into the deep reservoir of melted wax inside the candle on the glass coffee table until our hands were coated with it. We'd do this for anther 15 minutes or so until everyone came upstairs to watch the end-of-year countdown on TV.

What a silly thing for me to remember, and so fondly.

Another week or two would pass before Brian and I were in my basement playing pool, and it seemed like a good time to finally introduce him to Stereolab. Brian and I had only known each other for a little over a year, but we'd bonded so effortlessly over so many different things. Maybe I thought that it would only be natural that he would hear what I heard in Dots & Loops, that he'd just get it. It was important to me that he did. I know that sounds shallow, but it's the sort of thing that most people just take for granted. Liking the same things as your friends, I mean. Common ground. When that's missing, you have aimless conversations, nostalgia for the past, animosity for the present. The disc went into my toploading Sony Discman, the first tones of "Brakhage" coming out my boombox speakers. At the very least, I figured it would be nice background music that he wouldn't object to, if only to pass another hour in the basement with.

"What's wrong with it?"

"It" could have been my stereo, my CD player, or the disc itself. I didn't know just what he was referring to, but that was the last question I was expecting him to ask. I never got the feeling that there was anything particularly difficult about the track. Just give it a few seconds and you'll hear the rest of the song coming in behind the retro-glitch intro. Maybe that opening is weird, but it's nothing compared to the drum loops on "Diagonals" or the 17-minute "Refractions in the Plastic Pulse." And even then, I failed to see how anyone could find those songs objectionable. Unconventional and weird, sure, but not worthy of complete, immediate dismissal that was inherent in his tone. I think I turned it off out of sheer embarrassment and disappointment before a few minutes had passed. We never even listened to "Diagonals."

What's wrong with it?

Why, nearly ten years later, does this innocent question still outrage me? Why was I so insistent on subjecting my friends to this stuff, and so disappointed when it failed to meet their approval? Why then, have I always found it so hard to be friends with people who do like the same things I do? Am I just another picky bastard who finds fault with everyone, or should I be expecting even more from people?

While I ponder that, here's a better piece on Dots and Loops that actually discusses the music and keeps the personal anecdotes to a minimum. Can't help but identify Mr. Cunningham, though. Hell, we're even the same age, it appears. Hopefully he's at least gotten over his party soundtrack rejection experience.

Farewell, Stylus.

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