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Listening to My Life: Stereolab, North Carolina

May 26, 2010  |  7:30am
Listening to My Life: Stereolab, North Carolina

When I first moved from the flatlands of south Alabama to the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina, I felt obligated to play bluegrass or old-time fiddle music during every country drive. Any other soundtrack seemed like sacrilege. This lasted for about four months, after which it became painfully obvious that I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life driving around listening to the indigenous sounds of highland yore.

I began experimenting with other genres, other artists that seemed suited to my new terrain. The most confounding and utterly alien turned out to be Stereolab. I’m not a recreational drug user, but I experience Stereolab’s entire catalog as a Quaalude cocktail that preserves and amplifies every vaguely idealized and oval-shaped part of early-’60s Modernism. According to iTunes, I own 21 hours of Stereolab music, which lasts for a drive from sunrise to sunset, Saturday and Sunday, strung out on perpetual polyrhythmic ether—pure hypothetical nostalgia for an era I never lived, moving through a landscape that will never call me “local,” at a six-cylinder speed unnatural to man or beast.

Descending from Crabtree Mountain pass into the spreading orange folds below—through the communities of Luck and Trust, and into Hot Springs—I am infected by a swelling melancholy unattached to any particular time or place; a pure, qualitative contemplation of uncanny otherness. Hiking in these mountains, I can get to feeling grounded. But skimming their surface at this speed, encased in glass and metal, listening to mutant doo-wop harmonies swirling in electro-punk orchestration feels like being anchored to a cloud.

In this hyper-real state, the mountains melt. I have only mythologized and idealized them, anyway. They’ve been a kind of utopia to me, and utopia is Greek for “no place.” Stereolab and I move through the Appalachians, but we are not here. The music’s faux-modern vibe modulates the pseudo-spell that this landscape’s heritage has cast on me, and I lose myself falling through no-space.

Unsettling as the experience is, it seems like a crash course for heaven. In the movie Jacob’s Ladder, the guardian angel paraphrases Meister Eckhart: “If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.” Driving through Madison County listening to Stereolab is like passing through a purgatory of Mies van der Rohe architecture and root cellar meth labs, medieval troubadours and cocktail olives, proletarian revolutions and folk revivals, truck tires, barbed wires, rocks, cows, sheep, goats and mini-Moog synthesizers—everything falling away.

Maybe I should cease these Sunday drives, conserve gas, decrease my carbon footprint and take some clawhammer banjo lessons instead. But I probably won’t. Every attempted return to an idealized past only winds up thrusting me forward. False nostalgia for a modern utopia that never materialized commingles with transplanted longing for an old-timey time that never existed, and a new ghost is born. To quote Stereolab (quoting Freud), “This is the future of an illusion.” Winding home past Max Patch and Fines Creek on a fall evening, orange leaves die, an orange sun sets, lounge chords seep into the present and darkness rises.

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