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Stereolab

In an admiring review of their 2004 album Margarine Eclipse, Spin magazine hailed Stereolab as one of pop’s 50 mostinfluential ensembles. “No one can do beautiful, energising crossover pop like Stereolab,” concurred The Independent, whilea US writer, one Eric Greenwood, echoed the sentiments of thousands of ‘Lab devotees when describing the band’s enduringappeal thus: “The formula has never been broken; it’s only tweaked slightly with each new album, and I never want it toend..

Indeed, over fifteen prolific years of qualitatively consistent output, Stereolab have ...read more

In an admiring review of their 2004 album Margarine Eclipse, Spin magazine hailed Stereolab as one of pop’s 50 mostinfluential ensembles. “No one can do beautiful, energising crossover pop like Stereolab,” concurred The Independent, whilea US writer, one Eric Greenwood, echoed the sentiments of thousands of ‘Lab devotees when describing the band’s enduringappeal thus: “The formula has never been broken; it’s only tweaked slightly with each new album, and I never want it toend..

Indeed, over fifteen prolific years of qualitatively consistent output, Stereolab have accrued a vast, peerless cache of work,hallmarked by a unique, carefully evolving but instantly recognizable sonic signature. In addition to over a dozen glitteringLPs, their back catalogue is littered with fan-pleasing gems: limited editions, one-off collaborations, split singles et al. In theprocess they’ve galvanised an extensive, staunchly loyal international fanbase; become a byword for playful, stylishexcellence; struck a blow for the feminisation of rock and booked a permanent seat at experimental pop’s high table.

All of which is not bad for a group who eschew many of the established calling cards of rock ‘careerism’ in favour ofdedication to a singular, picturesque muse. To all intents and purposes, Stereolab continue to inhabit some hermetic paralleluniverse forever redolent with the innocent-yet-glamorous promise of space age futurism and timeless radical chic; theiressential fluorescence blissfully unsullied by the dreary spreadsheet certainties of the modern music industry.

Theirs is a rich, overflowing palette, readily able to blur the gulf between Os Mutantes and the BBC Radiophonic Orchestra;merge Krzysztof Komeda with the Velvet Underground, Francoise Hardy with Neu! and Burt Bacharach with Esquivel. Asuper-deluxe blend, in other words, with ingredients plucked assiduously from pop’s coolest outposts: 50’s lounge pop, RiveGauche chanson, Brazilian tropicalia, North American art rock, East European film music, Krautrock. hi-fi test recordings,library music and more. Somehow they distil these apparently incongruent components into an ageless exotica that is alltheir own.

Their song titles alone are evocative exercises in arcane modernism: John Cage Bubblegum, Lo Boob Oscillator, JauntyMonty And The Bubbles Of Silence, Motorotor Scalatron, Ticker-tape Of The Unconscious, Suggestion Diabolique and the like -designations that are evocative, smart, mischievous and, like the music they frame, somehow impossibly sophisticated yetbeguilingly childlike. Ditto a litany of vivid, graphically alluring, naively modish record sleeves.

Stereolab owe their genesis to C86 generation indie janglers McCarthy, helmed by East London record obsessive Tim Gane.As McCarthy fizzled out at the turn of the ‘90s, so Gane began a relationship with French-born singer Laetitia Sadier, thelatter contributing to McCarthy’s final recordings. The pair quickly regrouped, launching Stereolab in 1991 with Faith Healers’drummer Joe Dilworth, ex-Chills bassist Martin Kean and singer Gina Morris.

The band released a clutch of singles (sold by mail order, on tour, or through London’s Rough Trade shop) which werecorralled by Too Pure Records in 1992 and released as the LP Switched On. The wider world was thus introduced to Sadier’sstately, impassive vocal style (Nico by way of Jane Birkin and Laurie Anderson) essaying incisive disquisitions on the ennui ofconsumer culture. Inspired by Mai ’68 polity and French Situationist philosophy (rather than the oft-quoted ‘Marxism’),Sadier’s voice wafting cerebral Gallic cool over the band’s insistent dronescapes, instantly established one of modern pop’smost distinctive sonic marques. Indeed, to many, Stereolab seemed to have arrived ready formed; the perfect retro-futuristart band with impeccable influences and polemical power to add.

Equally full-bodied debut-proper Peng! also hit the racks in ‘92 just as the band was evolving into a formidable live entity,welcoming Australian harmony vocalist/guitarist Mary Hansen and drummer Andy Ramsay as core ‘Lab technicians. Furtherlimited edition singles and EPs ensued, helping cement a burgeoning cult following.

With an unquenchable appetite for touring, Stereolab were already eyeing the globe and, on the back of one such EP - TheGroop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music EP - signed to Elektra/Warner Bros for worldwide releases in 1993. ‘The Groop’now featured bassist Duncan Brown and ex-Microdisney multi-instrumentalist Sean O’Hagan who helped graft an urbane,faux-‘50s lounge quality onto the band’s already trademark motorik chassis, broadening their appeal still further.

Stereolab’s own bespoke indie label, Duophonic Super 45s, had been initiated in 1991 as a conduit for their early singles.1993 saw a split Super 45s 10”(with Nurse With Wound) entitled Crumb Duck and the sister Duophonic Ultra High FrequencyDiscs would henceforth become the band’s UK home imprint. (Duophonic would later release music by the likes of LaBradford, Tortoise, Broadcast and Gane and O’Hagan’s sometime splinter group Turn On).

Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements – their major label Elektra/Duophonic debut - followed in late 1994. Itremains one of the band’s best loved longplayers, with all eighteen minutes of the cyclic, luminescent Jenny Ondioline at itscore. A significant college hit throughout North America, the album also consolidated flourishing European and Japanesefanbases. Stereolab’s soon became the underground name to drop and the band capitalized with 1994’s Mars Audiac Quintet.- a showcase for Sadier and Hansen’s preternaturally intertwined vocal descants. Mars… was another transatlantic indie hit,boasted a new keyboardist, Katherine Gifford, and prefaced a deviation from beat combo chug in the shape of 1995’s MusicFor The Amorphous Body – an EP created for an interactive installation by artist Charles Long.

If nothing else, the EP confirmed Stereolab’s enviable position: significant enough ‘alternative rock’ sellers to make a healthyliving which in turn allowed scope for lateral experimentation. In the case of Music For… this meant a playground of intricatestring arrangements and measured keyboard melodies that were more restrained than the band’s established signature. Itslimited edition run of 10,000 nonetheless sold out in a day and graced many a critics’ end-of-year ‘best of’ charts.

Stereolab’s second volume of collected miscellanea, jauntily entitled Refried Ectoplasm (Switched On, Volume. 2), appearedlater that year (on Duophonic in the UK and Drag City in the US) and crept into the mainstream UK Top 30 after the bandtoured successfully with Pulp. Around the same time Morgan Lohte replaced keyboardist Gifford and a bold new phase ofStereolab recording began.

Decamping to Chicago to work with Tortoise mainstay/producer John McEntire, the band added ultramodern jazz, Latin andfunk nuances to their already esoteric template, along with the lush string arrangements of (now only occasional ‘Labcontributor and full time High Lama) Sean O’Hagan, creating a luxuriant, multi-textured sound.

The resulting Emperor Tomato Ketchup (named after a cult 1970 movie by Japanese director Shuji Terayama) - the band’sfourth full length album in five years - was released in the spring of 1996 and proved to be their biggest critical success todate (“the most addictive music of the moment” according to The Guardian). A copious cavalcade of delightful mood swings,it bristled with instant pop tunes like Cybele’s Reverie punctuated by eerie Krautscapes like of Olv 26 and the cranked upcombo swagger of Noise Of Carpet.

With Richard Harrison taking over from Duncan Brown on bass, the succeeding Dots And Loops, released in 1997, provedanother fine collection, this time easing off on the avant-funk pedal in favour of lavish brass, a swinging bossa nova feel andcarefully crafted arrangements. Mostly recorded in Chicago with John McEntire once more at the helm, part of the record wasalso cut in Düsseldorf with Andi Toma and Jan St Werner of maverick electronic duo Mouse On Mars. Mood music and ‘60sFrench pop influences were also more keenly felt here, with Sadier and Hansen’s cooing vocal synergy once more in excelsis.As was the norm, the band toured extensively in support.

A comparative hiatus then followed, mainly to facilitate the birth of Gane and Sadier’s first child. In the interim a third volumeof rarity ephemera – Aluminium Tunes (Switched On, Vol. 3) was released, featuring holy grail-like tracks from the longdeleted Amorphous Body Centre EP.

An unprecedented two year gap between studio albums (interrupted by a brace of anticipatory singles, including a one-offcollaboration with French chanteuse Brigitte Fontaine) had fans feverishly anticipating September 1999’s Cobra And PhasesGroup Play Voltage In The Milky Night. With a triumvirate of producers (John McEntire, Sean O’Hagan and Chicagoan enfantterrible, polymath and sometime Sonic Youth bassist Jim O’Rourke) the album was essentially created by committee. While itdidn’t expand the Stereolab universe quite as much as the more demanding aficionados had hoped, it proved anotherundeniably opulent confection of gorgeous vocal timbres and shimmering, pointillist arrangements (O’Rourke’s lovely stringsin particular). A breathless 5-star review from Uncut and approving notices elsewhere reinforced the impression thatStereolab had now attained ‘beloved institution’ status.

Recorded in London at the turn of the Millennium, the mini-album The First Of The Microbe Hunters, ushered in 21st centuryStereolab and a new bass player, Simon Johns both of which were baptized as the band toured Japan and North and SouthAmerica. Influenced by outer space-friendly classical composers Gustav Holst and Olivier Messiaen, the band’s seventh fullstudio album, Sound-Dust, appeared in September 2001, preceded by a bewitching four track EP, Captain Easychord.Recorded mostly in Chicago with the ‘avant-Celts’ - Messrs McEntire, O’Rourke and O’Hagan - once again at the helm, bothcollections were robust additions to the ‘Lab canon.

2002 saw the release of a sprawling 32-track, double CD collection of BBC radio sessions, an album, Socialism Ou Barbarie,by Laetitia Sadier’s side project, Monade and the end of Morgane Lhote’s tenure in the band. The BBC collection provided anapt moment of stock-taking, spanning, as it did, a prolific decade of Stereolab history from July 1991 to August 2001.

Construction of a new recording nerve centre – christened Instant 0, located 30 Kilometres north of Bordeaux – was now infull swing and this ought to have marked a valuable period of battery-charging for Stereolab. Sadly, tragedy was to strike inDecember with the death of Mary Hansen in a London cycling accident.

After a justifiable period of grieving, the group chose to soldier on and honour their recording commitments. The new studiowas completed and though Gane and Sadier’s relationship was now at an end, Stereolab were in positive mood and set aboutrecording fresh material with a renewed dynamism. Released in early 2004, the celebratory EP Instant 0 In The Universe wasthe first public proof of this. The album Margarine Eclipse followed in February, to a hail of critical hyperbole (“Stereolabcontinue to make space-dusted muzak that pleasures the cranium the way only synthetic-pulsed pop can” remarked X-Raymagazine, typically) and generally warm ‘welcome back’ vibes abounded. Most reviewers noted the poignant track Feel AndTriple - an elegy to the much-missed Hansen.

The album was proof positive of Stereolab’s redoubtable staying power - something borne out later in the year when theband signed a new worldwide licensing deal for their Duophonic imprint with Too Pure/Beggars Group – the place, essentially,where they’d started in 1992 (“back to the future” the NME dubbed it). Preceded by a timely reissue of the first Too PureSwitched On compilation in late February 2005 and another Monade album, A Few Steps More, in March, the other first fruitsof this enticing new chapter in Stereolab’s fourteen-year odyssey was the spectacularly titled Oscillons From The Anti-Sun, asumptuous, three-CD-plus-DVD box set. Compiling tracks from the band’s rare Duophonic EPs and singles as well as concertand TV appearances, the handsome rarities trove appeared that April.

In typically prodigious ‘Lab fashion, a sextet of impressive, limited edition 7”s swiftly followed, compiled on the spring 2006album Fab Four Suture which proved that Stereolab, as BBC Collective put it, “still combine avant-garde grooves withcelestial chimes like no one else”. Subsequently Laetitia Sadier, based back in France, went to work on a third Monade album– Monstre Cosmic (it would prove to be an early 2008 critical triumph) while the now Berlin-resident Tim Gane teamed upwith Sean O’Hagan to write and record the lovely soundtrack to French director Marc Fitoussi’s acclaimed 2007 film La Vied’Artiste.

Sessions for an eleventh Stereolab album were due to begin in the spring of 2007, just as Gane was finishing up hissoundtrack duties. With no time to go away and compose, the new record began as “a series of about seventy tiny drumloops” on top of which he would dub improvised chord sequences using piano and vibraphone, “building them up from there –later slowing the tracks down or speeding them up - a totally new way of doing songs for us…” With typical prolificacy, theband laboured over the summer at Instant 0, helping transform these blueprints into 32 luminous new songs, withkeyboardist/technician Joe Watson manning the mixing desk. Half the new repertoire was selected for the forthcomingChemical Chords opus (Gane is currently mixing the remainder for future releases) – an album which, for all the breathlessspontaneity of its invention, is arguably the band’s tautest, most highly focused work this century. Being released byDuophonic UHF Disks / 4AD, it’s a collection of “purposefully short, dense, fast pop songs,” according to Gane, brimming withMotown-like drums, O’Hagan’s finest baroque-pop brass and string arrangements and etched with some of Sadier’s mosteloquent, mellifluous vocal performances to date, it is, nonetheless, classic Stereolab; like all their best work, a perfectequipoise between an implausibly cool past and a shamelessly exotic future.

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LPs
Not Music
2010

3.4
12 Votes
Chemical Chords
2008

3.5
21 Votes
Margerine Eclipse
2004

3.3
20 Votes
Sound-Dust
2001

3.8
20 Votes
Cobra andPhasesGroupPlay Voltage in the MilkyNight
1999

3.6
27 Votes
Dots and Loops
1997

4
50 Votes
Emperor Tomato Ketchup
1996

3.9
109 Votes
Mars Audiac Quintet
1994

4
36 Votes
Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements
1993

4
63 Votes
Peng!
1992

3.5
35 Votes
EPs
Instant 0 In The Universe
2003

3
6 Votes
Captain Easychord
2001

3.7
3 Votes
The First Of The Microbe Hunters
2000

2.9
9 Votes
The Free Design
1999

3.3
2 Votes
Miss Modular
1997

4
3 Votes
Fluorescences
1996

4.1
5 Votes
Cybele's Reverie
1996

3.5
2 Votes
Music for the Amorphous Body Study Center
1995

3.3
2 Votes
Wow and Flutter
1994

3
1 Votes
Ping Pong
1994

3
1 Votes
The Groop Played "Space Age Batchelor Pad Music"
1993

3.1
10 Votes
Low Fi
1992

3.8
4 Votes
Super-Electric
1991

4
1 Votes
Super 45
1991

Compilations
Fab Four Suture
2006

2.8
9 Votes
Oscillons From The Anti-Sun
2005

3.4
9 Votes
ABC Music: The Radio 1 Sessions
2002

3.6
4 Votes
Aluminum Tunes
1998

3.4
7 Votes
Refried Ectoplasm
1995

3.8
12 Votes
Switched On
1992

3.1
11 Votes

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