Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements (Elektra ’93) Rating: A
Formed around the talents of Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier, Stereolab concocts an agreeable sound world around largely forgotten krautrock entities such as Can and Neu!, melodic lounge pop, ethereal dream pop, and the groove-based drone of the Velvet Underground. Rather than seeming forced or overly borrowed, Stereolab seamlessly intertwine these disparate elements into their own distinct sound. Though their musical ideas are hardly new, the band are perfect musical plunderers, thereby ensuring that the sound world of Sterolab easily transcends their influences. And though much has been mentioned in critical circles about the band’s political nature and Marxist beliefs, I find it difficult to decipher the lovely vocals of Sadier, which recall Nico but with about 100 times the warmth. This impenetrability actually works in the band’s favor, as it allows listeners to simply become entranced by the atmospheric details and sonic cadences of the hypnotic music. As for the tunes themselves, “Tone Burst” begins the album with a gorgeous ringing organ riff and some fabulous guitar feedback (not to mention Sadier’s sexily cooed vocals), “Pack Yr. Romantic Mind” is a lovely lullaby-like evocation with an especially dreamy organ part, and “I’m Going Out Of My Way” borrows a “Sister Ray”-like groove to gorgeous effect. However, what you think of this album will largely depend on your opinion of “Jenny Ondioline,” whose glorious groove drones on for 18+ mostly magnificent minutes. Elsewhere, the band at times indulges their experimental tendencies too much (I much prefer their more melodic side), but though this makes the album a little too inconsistent to attain "masterpiece" status, these songs are also modestly successful. The end result is an early career peak that's an essential Stereolab release. Note: Peng! ('92), the band's full-length debut, Switched On ('92), the first in a series of singles and rarities collections, and The Group Played "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music" ('93), the first of several EPs the band has released, preceded this album.
Mars Audiac Quintet (Elektra ’94) Rating: A-
This album is more consistently melodic but also more homogenous and less strikingly immediate and adventurous than its often-brilliant (if cumbersomely titled) predecessor. And while song titles such as “Nihilist Assault Group” and lyrical rhetoric like “in every society there invariably will seem to be, just a few men, keen to rule, overwhelming the majority” again attest to the band’s political bent, you’d be hard pressed to tell on most of these songs. Besides, that’s not why I listen to Stereolab, whose music is purely pleasurable even when judged solely by their intoxicating melodies and Sadier’s lovely sounding vocals (and often-amusing pronunciations). Anyway, you just gotta love a band that almost single-handedly brought both the Moog synthesizer and Farfisa organ back into prominence, while also playing a major role in the lounge pop revival. Airy “ba ba ba” or “la la la” harmonies (a band trademark) demonstrate a decidedly high pop quotient this time out that belies the band’s experimental reputation, though their largely undecipherable vocals (some of which are sung in French, another band trademark) all but ensure that the band will never gain any serious commercial radio airplay. Not that they care, for this a band that’s built for a cult audience, one who can appreciate both the great droning groove to “Transona Five” and pleasant fluff such as “An Amorphose,” which is little more than a repeatedly mumbled chant over some melodic organ (the main instrument throughout the album, whose bright music is perfectly in sync with its colorful album cover). However, though almost all of these songs are extremely pleasurable, it must be said that few of them really stand out from one another (another less desirable band trademark), and that at 67 long minutes Mars Audiac Quintet starts to seem like more of the same after awhile. Fortunately, when more of the same is so consistently good the end result is still most welcome by me.
Refried Ectoplasm (Switched On, Vol. 2) (Drag City, Duophonic Records ’95) Rating: A-
This second Switched On compilation of singles, rarities, and alternate song versions improved upon the first and is another extremely enjoyable release from during what I consider to be the band’s best period. On the whole, the majority of these songs are simple, repetitive drone-based groovers with just the right amount of electronics and Farfisa organ, plus beautifully sung/chanted vocals that alternate between English and French. Much less produced than their more sophisticated later material, I rather like the band when they keep things raw, simple, and uncluttered, and as such there are several songs here (“Lo Boob Oscillator,” “French Disko,” “John Cage Bubblegum”) that I (and many others) consider to be among the band’s very best. I find tracks like “Harmonium,” “Mountain,” “Revox,” “Sadistic,” and “Tempter” to be easily enjoyable as well, and while some of the other songs may not be great compositions per se, they generally deliver really good grooves nevertheless. Sure, I far prefer the Transient version of “Tone Burst” (one of my favorite Stereolab songs, after all), and the 13-minute “Animal Or Vegetable” requires some effort to get into for sure, but overall this collection is worthy of comparison to the band’s best proper albums.
Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Elektra ’96) Rating: A
In contrast to Mars Audiac Quintet’s uniformity, the first few songs here immediately announced a rediscovered sense of adventure, and without forsaking the band’s tunefulness. The band has always grooved before, but on “Metronomic Underground” they’re actually funky, making this the first Stereolab album you can groove to and dance to. Next, the easily melodic “Cybele’s Revenge” effortlessly introduces lush strings into the equation, catchy squiggly synths highlight “Percolator” before horn bursts bring the song to a close, and “Les Yper Sound” is exactly the type of sing songy sloganeering that the band does best. Surprisingly, the rest of this diverse album is similarly inventive, and unlike some of their other albums these songs flow together beautifully. Elsewhere, songs such as “Tomorrow Is Already Here” and “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” are great examples of the band’s new emphasis on percussion, probably due to the presence of producer (and Tortoise/Sea And Cake drummer) John McIntyre. As such, the band embraces the “post-rock” aesthetic of layered, offbeat instrumentation (with a heavy electronica influence) and an emphasis on sonic detail (note that this was before “post-rock” came to mean bands like Godspeed! You Black Emperor with their massive crescendos). Thus, the band’s sound is more multi-colored than ever, and longtime fans will also be appeased by plenty of “la la las” and dreamy vocals from Sadier and second singer Mary Hansen, who I probably should’ve mentioned earlier as her high-pitched vocals perfectly compliment Sadier. There’s also some great guitar sounds here, though they’re more understated and less upfront than in the past, which is fitting considering that the mellower music relies less on droning guitars than on textured instrumentation. As such, this superb album opened up a whole new world of musical possibilities for Stereolab, one that they’ve been exploring ever since.
Dots And Loops (Elektra ’97) Rating: A-
Unsurprisingly, one of the ‘90s most madly prolific bands was back a mere year later delivering Dots And Loops. In retrospect, Stereolab was one of the past decade’s more influential, and yes, best alternative bands (by “alternative bands” I mean the kind that you never hear on the radio), but I’ve got to admit that I’m slightly less satisfied by the band’s current direction. By this I mean that they’ve largely ditched my beloved VU drone in favor of atmospheric trip hop, swinging bossa nova, and lightly progressive lounge pop melodies meant for the “sophisticated” martini-drinking crowd. As such, Dots And Loops works best as easy listening background music, and though the band’s layered textures (which here includes an increased use of strings, horns, etc.) are always interesting, they’re never exciting or at all rocking (which this band used to be). Fortunately, Stereolab remain one of the most aurally pleasing bands around, so the ultimate end result of the band’s creative tinkering with their electronic toys is only slightly less alluring than their very best work. That said, this trippy 66-minute album is at times overly indulgent (only ten songs are listed but that’s not entirely accurate, as the 17-minute “Refractions In The Plastic Pulse” alone is comprised of at least four distinctly different sections), and it requires multiple spins for a full appreciation. In fact, it felt rather aloof to me at first, but I've since warmed up to it, and I look forward to again hearing its relaxed rhythms and melodic vibes (pun intended). Time for a martini... Note: The 2-cd Aluminum Tunes: Switched On, Vol. 3 followed in 1998.
Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Way (Elektra ’99) Rating: B
Stereolab returned with this absurdly titled album, which proffered up another predictably abstract album cover and continued in the band’s enticing but less exciting style. Fortunately, the eclectic Stereolab sound still works (though like many of their other albums this one takes time to appreciate and is way too long at 75 minutes), with sexy chanted female vocals, odd percussive patterns, chimey vibes, bleeping and blipping synthesizers, the odd catchy horn or swirling woodwind, and some lush string arrangements thrown into a blender. Yet like the best mixed drinks the end result of these oddly mixed ingredients is often intoxicating, and despite experimental multi-sectioned epics such as the minimalist 11-minute “Blue Milk” and the 8+ minute “Caleidoscopic Gaze,” the band also remain capable of delivering perfectly seductive pop songs such as “People Do It All The Time” and “Italian Shoes Continuum,” the latter of which, in typical atypical Stereolab fashion, completely changes mid-stream into something approximating a futuristic jam. The contrast between the free jazz of “Fuses,” the lush elevator music of “The Spiracles,” and the danceable “Op Hop Detonation” further demonstrates the wide amount of musical territory transversed here, yet most of these songs have something to offer (even if you’re not a Socialist), as this talented band’s faultless formula can consist of Sadier and Hansen simply chanting “ba ba ba” and still end up sounding good. This is the band’s jazziest effort to date, and they also continue to stress their mellower side, making it hard for me to remember that this used to be a guitar driven band. But too often Stereolab offers kitschy style over substance (i.e. it works best as background music), and the album’s abundant length and disjointed pacing makes it add up to less than the sum of its often-impressive individual parts. Note: The First Of The Microbe Hunters, an inessential 7-song EP, followed in 2000.
Sound-Dust (Elektra ’01) Rating: B+
By now most fans know what to expect from Stereolab: a strange futuristic pop fusion incorporating lush layers of adventurous instrumentation (piano, synthesizers, vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, etc.) juxtaposed against odd yet accessible rhythms and lovely female vocals singing largely inconsequential lyrics in both English and French. Fans already on board will likely embrace Sound-Dust, whose sophisticated and soothing sounds also probably won’t win the band many new converts. The main difference between Sound-Dust and previous efforts is that the band paints a slightly more impressionistic canvas here, and more than ever before Stereolab are incorporating horns and distinctly different sections within their songs. As usual, Time Gane wrote the album’s music and Laetitia Sadier the lyrics and vocal melodies, while Chicago post-rock icons John McIntyre and Jim O’Rourke produce. Head High Llama Sean O’Hagan also (as usual) contributes, and though keyboardist Morgane Lhote left the band few listeners will notice, as more than anything at this point in their career Stereolab offers consistency. This is a good thing and a bad thing. Few bands can effortlessly integrate influences as diverse as ‘60s French pop and bossa nova, classical music, ‘70s progressive rock and cheery “la la la” pop without it seeming forced. However, there’s also a certain stasis to current Stereolab albums, on which production and sound seemingly take precedence over songs, that at times makes me yearn for the simple guitar oriented band who used to worship The Velvet Underground. In other words, this band is still great at what they do, which currently consists of easy going yet elaborately uplifting mood music, but a little less of McIntyre and O’Rourke’s tinkering around and a little more of the old minimalist Stereolab sound might be in order to shake up the band’s formula a bit. Then again, the band is unlikely to alter their status quo, and I really can’t blame them too much, as Sound-Dust is yet another aurally agreeable and at times outstanding collection of songs.
ABC Music (Koch Records ’02) Rating: A
This massive 32 track, 2-cd collection, which compiles 9 separate appearances on BBC Radio between 1991-2001, is an essential compilation for both neophytes and hardcore fans. For those who don’t have anything beyond the band's proper album releases, this album is especially useful, as more than half the songs here are non-album tracks from the band's seemingly endless amount of EPs, singles, and Switched On collections (needless to say, this band is very popular among collectors). Some of these songs are hard to find, too, such as "Spinal Column," "Moogie Wonderland," and "Heavenly Van Halen (Pinball)," and though I lament the inclusion of only one song from Transient Random Noisebursts With Announcements and none from Dots And Loops and Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Way (curiously, the band took a break from BBC Radio between 1997-2000), the band smartly samples the most songs from their best album, Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Of course, Stereolab has always been more about sound than songs, and these songs sound great, smashing to bits any possible thoughts about Stereolab being a "studio band." True, the band's productions have gotten more and more elaborate over the years, but that hasn't always been a good thing, and these performances strip the band's music to its bare essentials. Indeed, early songs such as "Super Electric" and "Changer" show that the band had that special something right from the start, as these early guitar-based performances contain a genuine excitement that's been missing from recent releases. In addition, many of these dynamic live performances are more immediate than the band's occasionally sterile studio productions, and though they're also more flawed, that just makes the band seem more human. Finally, the album does a great job of showing their progression from their more rocking early sound to the funkier, more relaxed groove (and Stereolab have always been all about the groove) of recent vintage. Sure, it's a bit much to sit through both albums in a single sitting given how repetitive and samey sounding much of it is, but Stereolab are always accessible and never less than pleasant. They're a pop band first and foremost, after all, who at their worst are merely a bit boring or redundant at times. Fortunately, most of ABC Music showcases this great band at their absolute best. Note: Special props for the drumming of Andy Ramsey, a first rate player who I should've mentioned previously.
Margerine Eclipse (Elektra ’04) Rating: B+
Stereolab suffered a terrible loss when guitarist and singer Mary Hansen was killed in a cycling accident in 2002. Rather than pack it in the band decided to soldier on, with Sadier picking up the singing slack (via multi-tracking; Sadier does a great job but Mary is still missed) and the album as a whole acting as a tribute to their fallen, much beloved bandmate. Surprisingly, this is Stereolab's most buoyant, upbeat pop album in some time, as the band wisely decided to celebrate life rather than wallow in the depression that had enveloped them after Mary's death. The album still has the main flaw of all their recent releases in that many of the songs tend to blur together, but the benefit of a lack of solid song structures is that these songs can morph into interesting new shapes, oftentimes without notice. And though some of these songs at times sort of float into the ether, Stereolab's airy textures remain a one-of-a-kind experience, and there's actually more guitar here than on any Stereolab studio album in recent memory. "Margerine Rock" really does rock, and a percolating guitar groove picks up parts of several other tracks as well, such as "...Sudden Stars" and "Cosmic Country." Elsewhere, drums are prominent as well, particularly on parts (gotta clarify with the "parts" due to Stereolab's songs-within-songs nature) of "Need To Be," "Hillbilly Motobike," and "Feel and Triple," while "Margerine Melodie" and "Dear Marge" are notable for their disco elements and epic lengths. Last but certainly not least, "LA Demeure" is Stereolab at their groovy, breezy best, "Feel And Triple" addresses Mary directly ("goodbye Mary") in heartbreaking fashion, and "Bop Scotch" is another melodic, multi-sectioned highlight. Yet despite the band's free flowing compositions, this is actually the band's most straightforward effort in awhile (as one critic put it, the band has "shelved their tendency to over-egg the pudding"). There's not much here that you haven't heard before, as Stereolab has been delivering slight variations of more of the same for some time now, but Margerine Eclipse is another very good, effortlessly pleasurable effort that I'm sure Mary would've been proud of.