Boasting a growing fanbase within the college radio community, the 1996 release of Emperor Tomato Ketchup marked a critical apex for the multi-national group known as Stereolab. A diverse musical influence permeates the album as shades of funk, hip-hop, rock, dub, jazz and dance music collide to create a rare amalgam of perfect melodic pop and experimentation.
There's something to be said for a band that knows how to craft music so innocuously daring that you could still play it for Grandma. That something would probably be "yay" or a sort of muffled scream of excitement. Regardless to what that something that might be said is, it's understood that it is damn difficult within the realm of music to take a risk, no matter how calculated, yet maintain your core audience of fans as well as attract a new swarm of followers. An artist runs the threat of alienation; perhaps the diehards have become so encompassed with a certain aspect of a developed sound that to change the formula is to scare away all but the most devout. Perhaps neophytes, once willing to take a risk based on previous works and word of mouth, are taken aback at an unexpected change. Perhaps the experimentation has simply made the music indigestible. The number of situations can be infinite.
Nevertheless, the reward, if such a risk is successful, considerably outweighs the prospect of no change at all. Such is the plight of Stereolab's 1996 release, Emperor Tomato Ketchup
Throughout the early 1990's, Stereolab had been a source of enjoyment for both fans and critics alike. Their craft, while experimental in nature being rooted in Kraut-rock akin to Neu!, was as much indebted to pop and dance mavens such as ABBA. Titles such as The Groop that Played "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music"
or Mars Audiac Quintet
were evocative of just as they hinted at, sometimes sleepy, lounging, pop doused with enough solid rock by the hand of Tim Gane and company to keep the listener from feeling as though they had been completely transported to some astral rock club. Working in conjunction, Laetita Sadier's vocals, flipping between her native French and accented English, mingled philosophic lyricism with socialist meanderings in a very comforting tone. The result was most often atmospheric and droning but always compiled with a sense of compositional sophistication. This sophistication truely manifests itself on Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Each track explodes with catchy melodies on first listen but the success lies beneath the more than forthcoming pop charm.
Opening with the funk-inflected "Metronomic Underground", Stereolab sets the mood early; the ambience recalls blaxploitation films of the 70's. Kind of leaves you waiting for someone to say, "That Shaft, he's one bad mutha..." Beginnings aside, the temperament changes frequently throughout the album. String arrangements by Sean O'Hagan introduce and lead us through "Cybele's Reverie", which finds Sadier's velvety voice gliding atop a steady beat, whereas "Spark Plug" features dub grooves Lee "Scratch" Perry could be jealous of. The aptly named, noir-invoking "Percolator" features an acrobatic bassline garrisoned by keyboard stabs and sax blares. Half way through, the flat out rock of "The Noise Carpet" serves as an energetic climax with strident guitars and a driving beat which quickly changes pace into "Tomorrow Is Already Here", a bohemian track complete with convulsing guitars, xylophones and synthesizer swells. "Motoroller Scalatron" has Sadier in traditional lyrical form: "What's society built on/Built on blood" she recites, musing later, "Responsible for what I say, responsible for what I hush," in a sarcastic tone. Most of the album follows similar lyrical themes, a practice which tends to disarm the listener through Sadier and Mary Hansen's calm, unfettered vocal combinations. The album closes in familiar territory for Stereolab, "Anonymous Collective" recovers their tried-and-true teetering-inert swoon, which is nearly omnipresent but never so much as on the closer.
While a clearly more polished effort than past releases, both in terms of song writing and composition, it could be argued that all the polish creates more sheen than necessary. Not completely lost are the warm-blooded exuberance and studio mischief of older works but there is a greater focus on other aspects. The playfulness tends to comes out within the tight song writing, where maybe it would come in the form of a wild, dissonant jam or alien distortions at some previous point. Longtime fans may miss the friendly quirks but, ultimately, will not be disappointed by the change of pace.
Remember when we were talking about experimentation and risks and rewards earlier? Emperor Tomato Ketchup is an exemplary best-case-scenario. While the album didn't lead to universal mainstream acceptance despite the fact that it's wrought with accessibility, it did mark a zenith in the career of band already well noted and traversed. Every aspect of Emperor Tomato Ketchup has Stereolab at their best, from experimental methods to lush production and down to the songwriting. It may not pay to be good at what you do as Stereolab was recently dropped from Elektra's roster but it can clearly be appreciated. Even by your Grandma.