Stereolab: A Sputnik Guide
This feature is part of a hopefully ongoing series aimed at exploring the discographies of interesting and/or important bands whose wider body of work is often overlooked on this site. There will be lots of words and a few pictures, but the main deal is that if a band features here, they are good and you should listen to them! And if you already jam them, hit up the comments and explain where and why this is wrong! Get going!
“I saw Stereolab in Bellingham and they played one chord for fifteen minutes / Something in me shifted / I brought back home belief I could create eternity.”
This is unfortunately not my anecdote, but rather a disconcertingly well-timed snippet from Phil Elevrum’s reminiscences on the new Microphones album. It stands out as the only moment on that record that I paused and rewound on first listen last night to confirm that I had heard it correctly, and it solved the problem I had been grappling with as I came to the end of marathoning the Stereolab discography: how on earth do you go about writing a fresh introduction to such an iconic, influential and well-chronicled band?
Fortunately, Phil was so kind as to answer this question by (probably) confirming my loose theory: pick out any forward thinking artist active in the indieverse over the last two and a half decades or so, and there’s a strong chance they count Stereolab as one of their favourites. Centred around the creative partnership between multi-instrumentalists Lætitia Sadier and Tim Gane, Stereolab have done it all at this point: while most frequently labelled as experimental pop or, less commonly, post rock, they’ve dipped their fingers into krautrock, lounge, indietronica, noise pop, drone, jazz, shoegaze, and more, pulling all of them off with enough conviction, sophistication and personability to inspire a healthy wave of musicians to follow in their footsteps. Their discography is a treasure chest of quirky stylistic twists, and with their ten LPs ranging from decent to superb quality, they maintain a thoroughly impressive quality standard across their stylistic contortion act. This is compounded by their mountains of non-album material; to keep things from snowballing too badly, I’m going to avoid their many compilations and instead focus on the EPs that contain exclusively non-album material. These are generally pretty decent and offer helpful chronological snapshots of the development of the band’s sound.
Super 45 (1991)
Stereolab’s first EP is a fuzzy set of guitar jams that see Sadier, Gane and the early roster take a shot at transmuting Neu!’s deadpan aesthetic into a basis for warbly pop bangers (a shared mission statement for everything up to and including Low Fi). It’s appropriately noisy, repetitive and aloof, but also good fun – and a surprisingly good start! Gane’s choice of guitar tones leaves nothing to be desired, while Sadier dishes out one of her more urgent performances with enough conviction that the tracks’ relative one-dimensionalism is easily forgiven. “Brittle” gets my vote for the brightest banger here, but the standard is fairly even across all four songs. Stereolab’s focus and palette are fairly narrow here, but they make decent work of fat-free guitar pop.
Verdict: Wholesome origin story.
Tracks you need: Brittle, The Light That Will Cease To Fail
Dropping a few months after Super 45, Super-Electric is a respectable step forward that spreads that album’s core sound over a wider range of ideas. At some points – particularly the electrifying title track – it’s more exciting, but for the most part it’s a more reserved affair that sees the band dip their toes into less forthright territory, coming up with a more reflective approach that would drift in and out of their work from this point onwards. It’s a notable step up for the ol’ attention span: Super 45 wasn’t exactly a flamboyant album, but the cryptic “The Way Will Be Opening” and the longer kraut jam “Contact” make it seem like one-chord riff rock.
Not dissimilarly, “High Expectation” mixes the cosiness of ‘60s pop with the lethargy of ‘90s indie in a manner that would guide Stereolab’s tone for some time to come. Other key developments include a more sophisticated set of vocal layering and harmonising techniques on Sadier’s end and the true advent of Gane’s trademark vintage synthesisers towards the end of the title track. It’s not beyond refinement – “Contact” and “High Expectation” are practically prototype songs that would be tackled more convincingly on future outings – but Super-Electric showcases the band’s growing confidence and makes it clear that they were ready to make a full-length.
Verdict: Low-key super, mid-key electric.
Tracks you need: Super-Electric
“Incredible things are happening in this world.
Magical things are happening in this world.”
The deadpan with which Laetitia Sader nails this line in “Peng 33″‘s enchantingly zany chorus is as quaint a snapshot as any of what Peng! is all about. Incredible things – magical things, even! – are at work here, but Stereolab know better than to overdress them as such. A logical unpacking of the ideas at play across Super 45 and Super-Electric, Stereolab’s full-length debut is more concerned with showcasing the control the band could exercise over this sound than with exploring the possibilities of its development. “Orgiastic”‘s fuzzy reverie is a great example of this, holding onto one mesmerically narrow dynamic and melodic wavelength with such tenacity that you’d think the slightest change of tempo or rhythm would tear the song apart; the band know what they’re doing here, and they stick to it like glue.
That’s not to say that Peng! is a homogenous affair – the likes of “K-Stars”’ dazey shimmer and the rollicking banger “Stomach Worm” map out a healthy range of wavelengths – but every song here is stylistically precedented and well-behaved in its implementation of pop songwriting. As a one-stop chartering of the art of atmospheric overdrive from The Velvet Underground (“You Little Shits”) to The Jesus and Mary Chain (“The Seeming And The Meaning”) to Sonic Youth (“Enivrez-Vous”) to My Bloody Valentine (“Orgiastic”), Peng! fares respectably well, yet at points all it seems to be saying is that if those bands can play this kind of music, then, uh, so can Stereolab? It’s a solid assertion as such, but while future Stereolab albums would test the boundaries of what can be achieved within the meagre timespan of the conventional Long Player, the album is a more reticent “yes we can” to the less scintillating possibility of being able to fill two sides of vinyl in the first place.
Credit where it’s due, it is an album! Wry reductions aside, Peng! is an endearing first stab at the full-length mastery Stereolab would trot out on practically a yearly basis. Its contributions may not be their most groundbreaking, but, as the closer and album highlight “Surrealchemist” demonstrates with its droning vapour trail through the one-chord sunset of proto- post-rock, sometimes the simplest ideas are all that’s needed to touch on greatness.
Verdict: Good guitars that sound like other good guitars are a force for good.
Tracks you need: Surrealchemist, Peng 33, Orgiastic, Stomach Worm
Low Fi (1993)
Two EPs and an album in, this is where things get a little wayward for the first time. Sadier and Gane were clearly confident enough in the straightforward guitar pop they refined on Peng! that they felt it was time to start sabotaging it a little. Things start off blithely enough with the opportunely named title-track, as joyous a harnessing of droning overdrive to innocuous ’60s throwback pop vocals as you’ll get from early Stereolab, but “(Varoom!)”‘s unforewarned midway descent into five minutes of Loveless-fuelled shitgazing or “Elektro (He Held the World in His Iron Grip)”‘s decision to preface the tamest coda of the EP with three and a half minutes of scrambled noise are both indicative of a band exploring the liberating and cautionary dimensions of risk-taking with equal measure.
This is a relief for those stuck in the writer’s seat. As Low Fi‘s Pitchfork review outlines with devastating clarity over a slew of sentences that express very little beyond Stereolab being an exciting band who played real life musical instruments and engaged in putative homage to the Velvet Underground, writing on minimally-directed rock music from that particular school of iconoclastic scuzz is neither fun nor interesting for anyone not already firmly on board with it. The warmth, artiness and ‘coolness’ of this sound do not react well to dry-inked dissections; no-one ever benefited from being in the position of exhaustively explicating the mutually understood particularities hiding behind deadpan expressions. It’s like trying to precisely define what makes a funny joke so hilarious, and for this reason, it is doubtful that even a single non-contrarian review of, say, The Velvet Underground & Nico written in the presentÂ day could ever be more than remotely interesting. I’ve done what I can to make the specifics of Stereolab’s rock era engaging, but this sound became a whole lot more exciting once they started screwing with it rather than committing to it wholesale.
Low Fi is an important step forward to this end, showing the band starting to pick Peng!’s guitar pop apart at the seams in a way that somewhat foreshadows their imminent masterstroke Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, but at this point their various acts of deconstruction weren’t integrated particularly smoothly into the songs’ songwriting fabric. The result is certainly enjoyably volatile, but it’s a little overbearing in its disjointed substance and best valued as a tease of things to come.
Verdict: Results may vary.
Tracks you need: (Varoom)
The Groop Played “Space Age Batchelor Pad Music” (1993)
This is a somewhat important EP as a stepping stone in Stereolab’s development, but far from their most essential as a listening experience. Over the course of their discography The Groop did indeed play space age bachelor pad music; somewhere around Mars Audiac Quintet and Emperor Tomato Ketchup, leisurely retro-futurisms overtook guitar pop as their primary focus, more or less remaining that way for the rest of their career. This EP is less of a bold start and more of an undisguised toe-dipping: a bemusingly large chunk of the tracklist is made up of “look what this synthesiser can do” tone showcases that go nowhere, and some of the actual songs are a little drab. “Ronco Symphony” and “U.H.F. – MFP” are pleasant enough tracks, but they’re sufficiently one-note that anyone familiar with the band’s more fleshed out ventures in this style will be unlikely to hurry back to them.
“Avant Garde M.O.R.” is a more promising showcase of Stereolab’s capacity for chillout fuel, while both versions of “We’re Not Adult Orientated” suggest another step forward when it came to playing krautrock on their own terms, but more than anything else this release feels more like a warmup act for the direction the band would focus on with Mars Audiac Quintet. It’s curious that it didn’t directly precede that record, given that Transient Random-Noise Bursts is a much closer successor to Low Fi, but as a foot in the door it’s hardly inauspicious.
Verdict: Contains synthesisers!
Tracks you need: Avant Garde M.O.R., We’re Not Adult Orientated
Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements (1993)
The pinnacle of Stereolab’s phase as a guitar band, Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements is the boldest, nosiest and most energetic album in their arsenal, and it’s aptly named as such. It plays out like one huge eureka moment, with the band testing and widening the possibilities of rock music across a variety of guises. A series of key lineup changes took place before this album in time for Low Fi, with such key players as vocalist/guitarist Mary Hansen and percussionist Andy Ramsay hopping on board the Groop. The new roster find their feet on this record; their performances across the board are practically bursting with inspiration, and it’s never anything less than a joy to return them.
It’s hard to pick out highlights, but for me the two most important tracks are the dazzling expansive “Jenny Ondioline” and the explosive fission of “Crest”, which make for two wildly different but highly complementary experiments in reconfiguring basic rock structures into more exciting possibilities. “Jenny Ondioline” sees the band soaring through the stratosphere in a haze of Neu!-inspired layerings, while “Crest” sees them splitting the atom over a single brutishly simplistic riff. Both are iconic and rapturous once they hit their stride, hitting heights far beyond the sum of their influences; whatever potential Peng!‘s cocktail of familiar names teased at, it all comes to fruition here.
As for the more conventional tracks, “Pack Yr Romantic Mind”, “Analogue Rock” and “Our Trinitone Blast” are packed with fantastic melodies, while the opener Tone Burst will waste no time in filling your speakers with colour and kineticism. The album’s midsection contains some of its most interesting moments, as Golden Ball and Pause play off one another as a fantastic two-song charting of early post-rock, and to be honest, the only track here I wouldn’t consider thoroughly essential is the mildly endearing “I’m Going Out of My Way” (and even that makes for passable Velvet Underground tribute courtesy of a few choice hooks from Sadier).
Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements is one of the most important and enlivening Stereolab albums, and an absolute must for the band, post-rock, and even the ’90s in general. It’s hardly the most representative of the band as a whole, but if you only hear one of their albums you could do worse than to make it this one.
Verdict: One of the best rock albums about rock music ever.
Tracks you need: Crest, Analogue Rock, Jenny Ondioline, Tone Burst, Pack Yr Romantic Mind, Our Trinitone Blast
Mars Audiac Quintet (1994)
With the two most famous Stereolab albums either side of it, Mars Audiac Quintet finds itself a little outgunned and benefits significantly from the strand of consensus that elevates the band’s early-mid ’90s material over their other work. There’s a simple theme here: out with the guitars, in with the Moog. Guitarist Sean O’Hagan stepped down midway through recording, to be replaced by keyboardist Katharine Gifford (who had been affiliated with the band previously); the result feels like a tempered channelling of Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements‘ dynamism and excitement into a slicker pop sound with experimental leanings. This sounds appealing enough, but I’d say that most of Mars’ value lies in its role as a transition album from noisy krautrock to the smart pop zaniness of the band’s later output, rather than anything it nails on its own terms. This is perhaps the most homogenous Stereolab album, and the only one that feels significantly longer than its playtime in an end-to-end listen. It’s no fun to criticise, as it’s in many ways one of the warmest and most inviting of their outings, but that doesn’t make the “The Stars Our Destination” any less forgettable, “Outer Accelerator” any less overlong, or “Anamorphose” any less of a fuzzy test of patience.
That’s not to say it’s without its perks! “Transona Five”‘s lovely rock trundle makes for one of the most feel-good experiences in the Stereolab canon, “New Orthophony” is an intriguing mapping of the album’s spacier side, and the single “Ping Pong” is simply iconic in its appropriately bouncy fusion of pop and Marxism. This song is particularly notable both for breaking out of the album’s stubborn mid-tempo rut, and for showcasing perhaps the single most important part of the Stereolab sound for the following years of their career: Laetitia Sadier’s ultra-distinctive vocal counterpoint with Mary Hansen. While the pair traded many a line on Transient, this album (“Ping Pong” and “International Colouring Contest” in particular) seems them cementing a chemistry for deft harmonies and playful vocalises that would carry the band a considerable distance. For that alone, Mars Audiac Quintet would be a worthwhile undertaking – but beyond that, Moog devotees, kraut diehards and anyone looking for a wind-down from Transient… in a similar vein will likely find much to love here. Otherwise, it’s one of the less remarkable instalments in a discography with much more to offer.
Verdict: Warm, fuzzy, overlong spacehug.
Tracks you need: Transona Five, Ping Pong, New Orthophony
Music for the Amorphous Body Center (1995)
This rather relaxed EP sees the band shake off Mars Audiac Quintet’s denser synthscapes and settle into an airier sound that makes for something akin to the Stereolab Easy Listening Experience. Its full value has been lost to time, as it was written as a soundtrack to an exhibition by the sculptor Charles Long. I’m not sure what use anyone can be expected to derive from this information in 2020, but it does account for the fact that most of these songs seem to be missing something on their own terms. “How to Play Your Internal Organs Overnight” and “Space Moment”, for instance, seem more like soundtrack material than anything ideally suited to standalone listening, rewarding focused attention less than they do peripheral listens. However, there are a couple of keepers: “Pop Quiz” is an effortlessly lovable gem, while “Melochord Seventy-Five” is probably the most intriguing track here thanks to its urgent bassline and increasing layers of fuzz. Interestingly, the demands of the exhibition apparently didn’t necessitate its development to resolve squarely; this track feels a little incomplete, a shame given how much it evokes a number of highlight moments on Peng!. All in all, this EP is more of a user-friendly easter egg than an important transitional work; as deep cuts go, you could do worse.
Verdict: Stereolab should soundtrack more exhibitions / exhibitions should sound more like Stereolab full-lengths and less like sawn-off EPs.
Tracks you need: Pop Quiz, Melochord Seventy-Five.
Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996)
Many would label this as either the most successful or the most important Stereolab album, and it’s certainly a contender for their most popular. It’s easy to see why; the band’s eclecticism is at its blithest and boldest on this record, with the opening combo cementing their innovative credentials to near-universal acknowledgement. Opener “Metronomic Underground” sees them levelling up from krautrock to crossover psych with sly danceability, while “Cybele’s Reverie” is an appropriately dreamy weave of melodies that blends the majority of their experimental pop inclinations into one of their most deservingly famous standalone tracks. When it comes to charting the wider scope of Stereolab’s potential at peak clarity and catchiness, Emperor Tomato Ketchup is as inviting a portfolio as anyone could have hoped for.
It’s also full of great deep cuts. “Monstre Sacre” is one of their darkest and most subdued tracks, supporting Sadier’s grave vocals with an ominous string arrangement that has more in common melodically with the more nuanced undertakings of ’00s pioneers like Ulver or Kayo Dot than with the band’s supposed post-rock contemporaries. Sadier’s hushed crooning of Don’t let me down now might just be the single most threatening moment on any Stereolab song; not exactly their usual tone, but all the more striking for it. This song is just one example of the album’s disarming versatility, and a niche one at that, but it’s a good indication of the range of twists and turns at play here. The album’s diversity is one of its greatest strengths; the simple fact that “The Noise of Carpet”‘s hard-shouldered garage rock can exist on the same tracklist as the title track’s jaunty vibraphone caper is an achievement in itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best songs are the ones with the widest ranges of ideas; the opening pairing has rightly had acclaim heaped on it for these reasons, but the album’s most underappreciated highlight is surely the windswept “Slow Fast Hazel”, a breezy series of gear-shifts that trades off one of Stereolab’s finest basslines with one of Sadier and Hansen’s giddiest duets.
While there’s no denying this being one of Stereolab’s most significant albums, I think it’s been slightly overrated within their discography at the expense of the three or four albums that followed it. Its adventurousness as an overall package is a delight, but I find some of its individual cuts a little plain (tell me the last time you remember jamming “Motoroller Scalatron” as a standalone, and your next drink’s on me). However, you’ll struggle to do better than this for your first Stereolab experience; it’s an exciting listen and an excellent sample platter for the rest of their discography.
Verdict: Jack of all trades, master of some.
Tracks you need: Slow Fast Hazel, Metronomic Underground, Cybele’s Reverie, Monstre Sacre
This EP is awesome! In between Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Dots and Loops, Stereolab more or less completely let go of ever having been a rock band and committed to a layered, more evasive lounge sound. It wasn’t an overnight transition, however: Fluorescences is the perfect compromise between Ketchup’s upbeat charm and Dots and Loops’ craftful arrangements and starchier melodies. The title-track is an utterly perfect snapshot of the band’s pop mastery, in no small part thanks to one of Sadier and Hansen’s most quotable trade-offs, while “Pinball” is one of the warmest, most enlivening tracks in their canon, taking a similar tone to “Ping Pong” but exchanging its politicised fierceness for gorgeous French musing about morality and reality. “You Used to Call Me Sadness” follows on in a similar vein, offering a preview of the Dots and Loops experience with extra colour in its cheeks, and then there’s the 13-minute “Soop Groove #1”, a fun but unextravagent extended jam which does indeed groove and is drenched in several retirement projects’ worth of Soop. I’m not sure how I feel about this song taking up 50% of the runtime, but it certainly balances the other tracks’ immediacy with a more patient experience; its beat is on point and the band seem to have fun taking turns to flesh out its palette, so overall a worthwhile addition.
Verdict: Very fluorescent! Light up my stereolamp!
Tracks you need: Fluorescences, Pinball, You Used To Call Me Sadness
Dots and Loops (1997)
If Emperor Tomato Ketchup teased the various possibilities of Stereolab’s sound in an almost pick ‘n’ mix fashion, Dots and Loops saw them doubling down on electronic and lounge stylings with a renewed sense of refinement, coming up with the most focused album of their career and a strong contender for their overall best. This album is to lounge what Transient Random-Noise Bursts… was to krautrock: a slightly self-contained piece that tackles the style in question so convincingly that it stands as a kind of nucleus for the band’s other explorations of it. This album is a masterclass in atmosphere, boasting a tone that sounds like something Radiohead were paying a good deal of attention to circa In Rainbows, part blithe and part delicately morose as it is. On the other hand, moments such as the plodding bossa nova-inflected bassline and enigmatic melodies in “Contronatura” make it clear that Stereolab were themselves taking note of the UK’s movers and shakers in electronic throughout the mid-’90s. Dots and Loops in general is Stereolab’s most ‘electronic’ album, in part due to its occasional forays into jittery indietronica and modulated samples, but also because the rhythm section do such an exemplary job in underscoring the album with a steady of foundation of downtempo grooves.
This leads to such a cohesive atmosphere that the enormous centrepiece track “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse”, a seventeen-minute composite of tenuously related, unsegued segments, feels like a convincing one-song digest of the entire album, a string of highlights so clearly drawn from the same creative place that they have no reason to make any pretence of being part of the same singular moment. The same is true across individual tracks; “Prisoner of Mars” and “Rainbo Conversation”, for instance, blend together seamlessly while offering slightly different variants on the album’s central aesthetic of enigmatic chill.
There are a couple of slight outliers – “Diagonals” and “Parsec” both offer a bouncier, more outgoing take on the album’s borderline dour mould – but for the most part, this one maintains a steady mood like no other Stereolab album. As their most cohesive outing with perhaps their most mature tone, Dots and Loops will be an inevitable highlight for anyone drawn to Stereolab’s smoother side and a vital precedent for the many lounge-inclined undertakings that followed it.
Verdict: One of the best albums, pure and simple.
Tracks you need: Contronatura, Rainbo Conversation, Prisoner of Mars, Brakhage, Refractions in the Plastic Pulse, Ticker-tape of the Unconscious
Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night (1999)
Probably the most controversial Stereolab album, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night is a wildly imaginative unpacking of Dots and Loops‘ cryptic lounge sound that toys with jazz, ambient post-rock, abrupt changes of pace, and cartoonish noir-isms across a seventy-five minute runtime, every second of which will likely be stretched across your attention span by the time things come to a close. Upon release it was panned on grounds as contradictory as creative indulgence, creative stagnancy, failure to advance the Stereolab sound, transgressive advancement of the Stereolab sound into the realm of quote-unquote bad jazz and other such high-nosed waffle.
This is a bit of a headache, but the majority of these dissenters can be written off as musty kraut fans because this is quite comfortably one of Stereolab’s finest. The band tend to be at their best when their sense of adventure is at its boldest and most uninhibited, and in this respect the album is a case study rivalled only by Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements. The likes of “Italian Shoes Continuum” and “Caleidoscope Gaze” are among the strangest, most unpredictable songs to come out under the Stereolab name, so oblique and, at points, abrupt in their structure that their success is both testament and indebted to the band’s unwavering chemistry; that dual sense of charm and conviction that underpins every Stereolab album has never been more evident or more necessary. While “Caleidoscope Gaze” is as close as can be found to a one-song snapshot of this album’s scope, the breadth of its ideas is more evident in the spread of individual songs. “Velvet Water” and “The Spiracles” show the band at their most measured and digestible, while the fraught opener “Fuses” and the zanier-than-words “The Emergency Kisses” push the envelope in an exciting but considerably less comfortable manner. The same is loosely true for the eleven-minute anti-epic “Blue Milk”, a unique moment for Stereolab that poses an understated exhibition of reflective ambience as an attritional challenge. On the other hand, “Infinity Girl and “Strobo Acceleration” have the the album covered for quirky pop fare, and “Puncture In The Radak Permutation” is a jack-of-all-trades career highlight that gradually builds a delicate sense of mystery over cyclical vibraphone arpeggios, equal parts foreboding and entertaining. “Puncture” is a particular triumph for Sadier and Hansen’s mic partnership, which is generally critical for this album, providing a distinct character for sections that would otherwise be ambiguous in their direction and potentially unconvincing in their articulation. Cobra and Phases… can be an overwhelming listen and stretches its own seams to almost irresponsible levels of tautness, but it’s one of the most rewarding and exciting experiences Stereolab have to offer.
Verdict: Weirdest and wonderful-est milky night of your life.
Tracks you need: Puncture In The Radak Permutation, Velvet Water, Infinity Girl, Strobo Acceleration, Caleidoscopic Gaze
The First of the Microbe Hunters (2000)
The First of the Microbe Hunters is…uh, unfortunate. If Cobra and Phases… was a case study in Stereolab drifting over to the deep end without losing any of their charm, this is where things get a little ridiculous. Things start on a low note: “Outer Bongolia” is post rock in the most tedious sense of the term, an infuriating opener that wastes a quarter of the EP’s runtime meandering around one semi-interesting vibraphone hook that you will be cursing silently yet strongly by the end of the track. While nothing else here is the same level of egregious, the majority of the tracks bog themselves down trudging from overlong idea to overlong idea as though looking for a jam that never materialises (closer “Retrograde Mirror Form” is a particularly clear example). There are bright spots – “Intervals” is a decent art-pop number with a nifty sax (?) hook, and “Household Names” has a catchy funk groove to support one of Sadier’s smoothest and shrillest vocal leads – but these tracks feel trapped under the weight of the bloat either side of them. I’m not sure what went wrong here; it’s like the band went into do-whatever mode and let their hitherto reliable quality control instincts outside the studio doors. The results go on, and on – this is a forty-minute EP, for crying out loud! Don’t mistake that runtime for worthwhile substance; this one is among the biggest tests of patience in the Stereolab canon.
Verdict: No more microbe hunters, please!
Tracks you need: Intervals, Household Names
Sound-Dust saw Stereolab turn over a new leaf for a new decade. The Cobra and Phases... sceptics saw this one as something of a return to form and a new direction, and while I’d dispute the former and question whether it’s an outright improvement as the latter, it’s a slight relief that Stereolab decided that Cobra and Phases…’s full-length successor should have a more obvious centre of gravity (especially given the silliness that went down on The First of the Microbe Hunters). Sound-Dust marks the beginning of what we might call the band’s space-lounge phase, where their quirkier tendencies were refined into a more consistent aesthetic of slightly cartoonish space-age fantasy and their songwriting favoured a smoother, more relaxing direction. There are a couple of exceptions – parts of it see noirish kitsch creeping back into the frame, such as “Suggestion Diabolique”’s hair-raising lyrics and “Space Moth”‘s ominous grooves – but for the most part these songs stick to lighter territory and avoid going off the deep end with anything more than playfulness. “Baby Lulu” and “Captain Easychord” are perfect toe-tapping balancing acts in this vein, toying with light and darkness in crass but gratifying alternations, while for my money “Naught More Terrific Than Man” is the best pop song the Groop ever wrote, a deliciously chilled out musing on morality and pluralism that will stick in your head for days.
I wouldn’t call Sound-Dust an underrated album (it’s received a reasonable degree of acclaim), but I think its importance in the wider scheme of Stereolab has been somewhat understated. This album is as much a reference point for their other 21st century work as Transient Random-Noise Bursts… was for everything pre-Dots and Loops. It carries another, ill-fated level of significance as the band’s final outing with Mary Hansen, who died in a horribly random bicycle accident only a year later. Hansen’s work across the previous four Stereolab albums in particular was such a key part of their sound and character that the prospect of the band without her was surely unthinkable. We’ll get to how the remaining members worked around this with Margerine Eclipse, but as the end of one era and the start of another, Sound-Dust is as buoyant as it is portentous and, for Hansen, a final performance to be proud of.
Verdict: Spook-dust, extra smooth: more Space in your living room!
Tracks you need: Naught More Terrific Than Man, Space Moth, Baby Lulu, Suggestion Diabolique
Margerine Eclipse (2004)
Part successor to Sound-Dust’s space-lounge, part zany eulogy to Hansen, and part aftermath of Gane and Sadier’s finally elapsed romantic relationship, Margerine Eclipse emerged from presumably the most troubled point in the band’s history. It carries a deceptive amount of emotional weight as such; Stereolab are certainly a whimsical band at points, but they don’t go in for crassness or catharsis. On the surface, Margerine Eclipse is no exception, but there’s something about the haphazard arrangement of its eclectic tracklist and the choppy compound structures of some individual songs that belies a restless, disjointed feeling that the band clearly chose to embrace here. It’s a subtle difference from the way they played on Sound-Dust – when they take things smooth on “The Man With 100 Cells” and “Vonal Declosion”, you’ll barely notice it – but at points it’s surprisingly affecting. It doesn’t take much to read between the lines of the ultrablithe perkiness that kicks off the miniepic “Dear Marge”, and I’ll be damned if hearing Sadier cover for Hansen with a markedly unaccompanied vocalise in the generally fantastic “Cosmic Country Noir” isn’t indirectly one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.
While likely not intended for this effect, the band’s choice to confine every track in the mix to either the left or right channel relates to this undertone neatly, emphasising the individual strength of parts of the arrangement that would otherwise receive less attention, while at points interspersing a subtly disconcerting level of distance between them. It’s also a classic Stereolab move to seize such a retro stylisation and wrap the finer details of their sound around it in a way that furthers their own innovations. Pay close attention to the channel allocation of separate percussion elements on any given song here and you’ll see what I mean; I can imagine Tim Gane grinning over his panning dials with endearing clarity.
Margerine Eclipse is by far the most bittersweet Stereolab album, but it would do it a disservice to focus on this quality when it commits so resolutely to advancing and experimenting with the space-age lounge sounds that Sound-Dust established so robustly. Its emotional qualities are mainly tangential to its commitment to these aesthetics, yet they’re all the more moving for it. A solid album on sentimental and stylistic grounds, all things considered.
Verdict: The cheeriest of sad albums: best of both worlds.
Tracks you need: Cosmic Country Noir, Dear Marge, Vonal Declosion, Margerine Melodie
Chemical Chords (2008)
Following in the footsteps of Sound Dust and Margerine Eclipse, Chemical Chords takes the space-lounge sound that the band had thoroughly chartered by now, offering a more streamlined, succinct take on it that will potentially prove attractive to those put off by its predecessors’ artsier meanderings. Of every Stereolab record thus far, this one feels the most like a ‘pop’ album in its focus on straightforward songwriting and prominent hooks, and while this makes for an inviting and highly gratifying first listen, it’s perhaps a little disadvantaged as such. These tracks’ immediacy and striking motifs don’t quite cover up for their relative unadventurousness, and there are so many of them that the album’s substance feels spread somewhat thinly. That said, Chemical Chords sports some of the Groop’s best melodic work in its theatrical title track and the “The Ecstatic Static”, while “Neon Beanbag”‘s infectious bounciness and “Daisy Click Clack”’s urgent bobbing and weaving are testament to the many good things that can come from putting upbeat hooks front and centre. This is a breezy listen that provides a sprightly insight into Stereolab’s confidence as pop songwriters, and if it prioritises toe-tappers over leftfield surprises, well, there are worse consumer hazards.
Verdict: Chemical bops for thought-free ultraconsumption.
Tracks you need: Neon Beanbag, Chemical Chords, Daisy Click Clack, The Ecstatic Static
Not Music (2010)
So this is why Chemical Chords felt so fat free! Released a year after the band began their decade-long hiatus, Not Music is a series of outtakes and reworkings from that album’s sessions. With its mix of belatedly released original content and remixes of older songs, Not Music is somewhat accurately titled; it exhibits full-length and compilation features in equal measure, offering an experience similar to both but representative of neither. Its tracklist is a bit of a mishmash: “Supah Jaianto”, “Laserblast”, and a slew of other tracks feel like unadulterated Chemical Chords leftovers; “Leleklato Sugar” and “Sun Demon” are more disparate songs that harken back to Margerine Eclipse; the two most extensive reworkings of Chemical Chords songs, both in collaboration with other artists, practically contain their own centres of gravity and stand out like sore thumbs. Emperor Machine’s mix of “Silver Sands” is the album highlight and the most distinct track here, a ten-minute synth pop tour de force that remodels a previously middle-of-the-road cut from Chemical Chords beyond recognition, and it stands out as both the grooviest and most adventurous thing here by a decent margin. On the other hand, Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox (under the moniker Atlas Sounds) contributes a drone mix of “Neon Beanbag” that literally no-one asked for (aside from the band, I would hope). Following a somewhat aimless retake of Chemical Chords’ “Pop Molecule” this track closes the album in a rather drab fashion that overlooks the tendency for minimal outros to work best if they wind down whatever momentum or the direction the album in question had sustained hitherto. Not Music is a little lacking in both, and so the closer leaves the listener in the odd position of feeling simultaneously overwhelmed and short changed.
This kind of conclusion cements Not Music as a curio rather than a particularly unified work; Chemical Chords might have been a little leaner than your typical Stereolab album, but at least it had an impressive sense of focus. Not Music, on the other hand, makes for a decent listen, but is also the first Stereolab album that feels palpably short of its own identity. It was a fitting cliffhanger to usher in the band’s hiatus as such, and a relatively unintimidating precedent for whatever material they return with now that they’ve reformed.
Verdict: New chords, same chemistry: may contain music.
Tracks you need: Silver Sands (Emperor Machine Mix), Everybody’s Weird Except Me, Aelita
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