What’s that, you say? Haven’t heard any good instrumental music in a while? Well, while the infusion of hip-hop into everything from R&B to heavy metal shortens attention spans and moves the importance of vocals in popular music to even higher extremes, some people, even ones who themselves normally romp ‘n’ roll through mostly vocally oriented material, are making some damn good instrumental stuff. Music with themes and substance. Music like what’s found on Europa 51’s Abstractions.
Some think instrumental music is for the background, good to read or go to sleep to. It can lend itself quite well to this, but surely this is based on the listeners and their juxtaposition to any given material’s moods and charms, instrumentation and flavor. Europa 51 could, I suppose, make an elegantly quirky choice for dinner music, but then again so could Can or Slayer — it all depends on what the listener finds in them. But there is a lot of cool stuff on Abstractions, and it’s good enough to be enjoyed by anyone who likes to be engaged by any form of good music. Fans of the High Llamas, Laika, Imitation Electric Piano or Stereolab should especially take heed; members of both groups and their musical distinctions populate this disc.
“Radio Rodeo” opens the album with a lounge-rodeo flavor — which recurs frequently — smoothly blending jangly, country-ish guitars and rhythms with spacey pop. It conjures visions of some Parisian inspector trapped within the contexts of brandy snifters and Stetson-wearing intrigue. The second track, “Europa 51,” advances this feel, flowing into a quasi-Stereolab arrangement complete with vibes, carrying a tuneful vocal-like melody line along trombone wafting in and out like starry-eyed smiles.
Starting with the third track, the spinstery vignette quality that floats through High Llamas albums such as Gideon Gaye appears, lending a supernatural interlude to our story. These cellar-door overtones pepper the rest of the album, adding a spectral texture over the many other ingredients that appear, from more traditional jazz feelings to more country-summer charms. “Free Range Corona,” in which light hearted-vocals play with the tear ducts at the corner of the eyes and sweeping nostalgia comes face to face with toe-tapping rhythm, contradicts everything you thought you knew about the archetypes of music culled here. The simple country life meets the moog-world of the twenty-third century. In a word, beautiful.
And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “Voyeurism,” a wonderfully painful song to listen to, with the late Mary Hansen of Stereolab strolling back into our lives, somehow seeming to assure us that indeed, in heaven everything is fine. Abstractions is not entirely instrumental, and the vocals that do surface now and again gel so well with everything else you really don’t even notice they are there, except of course when you realize that most of them are Mary, and this is just one last memory of her to savor. But the music is solid, strikingly so, a sure hit with anyone who may find music playing in his head even when none is on in the room.