Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 21)
I’m all for experimenting with music. The efforts to push the boundaries of what makes music music and the continued use of electronics to fuzz what we can do with simple music theory and go team music and all that. But why does experimental music have to be such a drag? Typically when someone describes a band to me as “experiment music” I’m subjected to a lot of banging trash cans on studio walls and the effort to make sure the air sounds right man
but a total lack of enjoyable melodies or catchy hooks. Don’t these experimental musicians remember that people have to listen to this?
That brings me to Stereolab, an experimental pop group that builds its wilder tendencies around perfectly hummable choruses and melodies. And Emperor Tomato Ketchup
presents a wonderful, even (gasp) accessible, collection of freaky deaky elevator music.
Stereolab was formed in 1990 by Tim Gane and Lætitia Sadier and began releasing material on their own label called Duophonic Super 45s. Their music took a more abrasive bent until 1993’s Space Age Bachelor Pad Music
which, as the title suggests, started taking inspiration from lounge and easy listening music. This shift was key in the bands development as it allowed for more accessible elements to merge with the band’s sense of adventure.
And on opening cut “Metronomic Underground” both sides of that equasion are ready and present. A squelching synth does battle with dying electronics before a groovy bassline comes through and straightens the whole mess out. A palm muted guitar struts its stuff and soon the whole thing is just coasting under a hazy sunset organ. But what are those lyrics? “Crazy. Sturdy. A Tor- pedo.” Sadier’s clear tenor enunciates each word with laser accuracy as funky “da ba da”s and commands to “Keep the mouth closed/Rounding the sharpness/Untie the tangles/To be vacuous” go sailing overhead.
From there the album is a breezy and fun pop record with just the right amount of weird to keep things from getting too straightforward. “Cybele’s Reverie” weaves through thick strings before sailing off on its blissful hook. “Les Yper-Sound” conjures up a motorik groove while “The Noise of Carpet” goes for an enthusiastic, but subdued, rock out punctuated by synth burbling. Drony closer “Anonymous Collective” sports a vocal melody that has one octave that sounds ever so slightly off but in the best way possible, making for a nagging hook.
Stereolab went on to consistently hone their sound, further adding and removing elements in pursuit of the blissful pop groove. Emperor Tomato Ketchup
remains their definitive work, perfect for seducing the sexy alien of your dreams.