Review Summary: Stereolab and second album slump.
“Oh no! Everybody loved it! What do we do now!?”
Listen closely at the door of the cinema after a successful premiere, at the artist’s entrance, and you’ll hear this. At the toilet of the debut book release party of a young writer (accompanied by some sobbing). The finale of an immensely popular first series of a television show. This horribly scary ‘sophomore slump’, also known as the ‘second year syndrome’ or ‘second year blues’, is infamous in many fields; from literature, theatre, to sports, television, and even software development.
And in music. Oh, yes, in music. Who remembers Kate Bush’s Lionheart? The Stone Roses’ aptly titled Second Coming? Bloc Party? Editors? Or, to a lesser extent (and if you ask me, not even deserved in the slightest) albums such as Portishead’s self-titled or Massive Attack’s Protection? They were being overshadowed by their acclaimed older siblings, and are looked down on from the very moment they saw the light of day.
Perhaps it is weird to talk about this syndrome in a review for Stereolab’s Mars Audiac Quintet, this being their third album after all. But I think it suffers from this same curse, for it had the questionable honour of being the follow-up to The Groop’s early career highlight Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements. This second album was much more critically and commercially successful than their 1992 debut Peng!. In that regard, I think one can make a case for Mars Audiac Quintet being their true heavily anticipated second album. And Mars’ bad luck doesn’t end there. Looking back on it now, it is in an even more dire position, since it was also followed up by what is considered to be one of their best ever records, Emperor Tomato Ketchup. What sense should we make of this lost third child of French-British parents?
Stereolab perhaps were in a situation comparable to the one Radiohead was in a few years later. They also experienced ‘second album syndrome’ for their third record. OK Computer was a bold statement, much like Transient Random-Noise Bursts was, of a young band finding their niche with incredible confidence. How do you follow up such a successful album? Radiohead famously chose to do a complete 180 and ditched the rock elements that brought them success in the first place, destroying any notion of a sophomore slump with 2000’s Kid A.
The same cannot be said for Stereolab. Instead of a complete shift in sound, the differences between Noise-Bursts and Mars Audiac Quintet are much smaller. One thing that becomes apparent however, is a slight shift in focus from the guitar oriented, krautrock tinged style they adopted on their second album, towards a more keys-heavy, organ drenched space rock flavour. The fact that second guitarist Sean O’Hagan left the band and was replaced by Katharine Gifford on keys certainly made this change possible.
Perhaps Mars Audiac Quintet can be seen as the transition album of a band that is always in transition anyway. Throughout their career, Stereolab moved from full-on shoegazy indie-rock beginnings (Peng!) and krautrock (Noise-Bursts) to less guitar driven progenitors of Post-Rock (Tomato Ketchup and onwards), with Mars Audiac Quintet being the transitional step in between. It brought them some radio play too, with a true pop hit by means of Ping Pong, with its satirical, business cycle lyrical themes contrasting nicely with its punchy, bouncy, and goofy energy.
Next to this careless joy, other Stereolab tropes are present here too. There are several slowly evolving numbers, some containing a sudden shift in energy halfway (Nihilist Assault Group and Outer Accelerator), while others stick to their groove for their whole runtime (Anamorphose). International Colouring Contest brings a homage to eccentric American musician Lucia Pamela, including a vocal clip that says: “I’m so full of ideas, and here is a good one”, which later is repeated in Laetitia’s lovely French accent. New Orthophony, one of the absolute highlights here, creates a very mysterious atmosphere, much like their late 90s records.
Of course this album isn’t without its faults. Some tracks here feel a little superfluous, despite them being nice on their own. The Stars Our Destination for instance unnecessarily slows down the middle of the album, which is especially dangerous for a 70+ minute release. Luckily these moments are short-lived, because a song like Transporté Sans Bouger saves the day again, with a nice motorik shuffling beat coupled with clear, French vocalisations contrasting against growing feedback of the guitar heavy outro.
In the end I think it’s safe to say that Stereolab deftly avoided second album slump with their third full length. Mars is an album containing a mixture of the styles that brought them recognition. The band shows that by slightly tweaking your sound, you can safely avoid any slumps whatsoever, as long as you do it with dedication. However, the fact remains that Mars Audiac Quintet has only about half the ratings of their more popular albums from their golden age, which, given its quality, is totally unfair. Give this album a go, don’t overlook it, and dispel that second year blues!