The clinical name chosen by this London-based sextet is somewhat appropriate, given its fondness for gene-splicing experiments in which hair-thin fibers of kraut-rock drone, Europop lilt and didactic theory are hybridized to provocative ends. But while explaining Stereolab’s modus operandi requires plenty of academic discussion — mostly about matters such as semiotics and post-structuralism — the group always manages to execute its theories with a peerless brainiac charm that alternately recalls Astrud Gilberto fronting a particularly zoned version of Neu! and a parallel-universe lounge-pop Arkestra conducted by LaMonte Young.
Formed by Tim Gane (who had fronted McCarthy, perhaps the bubbliest Marxist brigade ever to hit the UK) and French-born Laetitia Sadier, Stereolab made its initial incursion through a series of limited-edition (some mail-order-only) singles united sonically (by the tension between Gane’s scratchy guitar and Sadier’s lulling vocal drone) and visually (by the recurrent cover image of a grinning, pointing cartoon). The band’s first three singles are compiled on the ten-song Switched On collection, which seems to glide almost seamlessly from track to track, thanks in part to the controlled motorik drumming of Joe Dilworth (on loan from Th Faith Healers). Sadier’s drowsy Francophone coo is at its most sirenic on “Changer” and “Au Grand Jour”; when she’s buoyed by the harmonies of Gina Morris (who would soon depart) on songs like “The Way Will Be Opening,” the magnetic field is even stronger. (That early lineup, with bassist Martin Kean, ex-Chills, is also documented on the Peel Session EP, performing four songs in July ’91. The disc also contains BBC tracks by PJ Harvey and Th Faith Healers.)
Released concurrently with Switched On, Peng! might as well be subtitled Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Analog Synthesizers but Were Afraid to Ask. The love with which both Gane and Sadier navigate an array of vintage Moogs is tangible on both pastoral drones (like “Super Falling Star”) and more direct Kratftwerkian plunders (“Orgiastic”). What sets Stereolab apart, however, is the way in which the group consistently re-creates the utopian worldview espoused by mid-’60s advocates of better living through science — as evidenced by the starry-eyed “Peng! 33.” On the post-structuralist front, Stereolab offers up “Mellotron,” the first of what would be many self-referential tributes to sound for the sake of sound.
The addition of yet another singing keyboardist, Mary Hansen, was first chronicled on the “John Cage Bubblegum” single, a title that, in itself, gives about the best description of Stereolab’s sound extant. An even more sumptuous, opalescent approach was ushered in when second guitarist Sean O’Hagan (formerly of Microdisney, also of High Llamas) and new drummer Andy Ramsay joined for the recording of The Groop Played “Space Age Batchelor Pad Music.” Presaging the ironic lounge music revival, Stereolab leaped feet-first into the martini-fueled Moog-music singled out in the album’s title with plenty of Gane’s meta-pop ideas in tow. Cheekily divided into “Easy Listening” and “New Wave” sides, the album isolates the individual components of the band’s hybrid sound, concentrating its lilting minimalism on the first half (see “The Groop Play Chord X” and the consumerist anthem “Ronco Symphony”) and the electro-glide pulse on the latter’s “We’re Not Adult Orientated (Neu Wave Live).” A sonic cocktail with an entirely different kind of twist. The Lost Weekend, a sampler of various bands, was available only at two London shows at which the band supported the Afghan Whigs: it includes a version of “Crest,” which would later show up on Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements.
Stereolab styled the packaging of Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements from a test disc dating back to the days of hi-fi, complete with advisories about what each track is designed to trouble-shoot. (The group also sampled the disc for one track here.) While there’s no disputing the presence of a tongue-in-cheek subtext, the reverence with which the sextet assembles its sonic ramparts is impossible to miss: there’s as palpable a defiance in the mekanik drones of “Our Trinitone Blast” (an emphatically strobing melody overlaid by Sadier’s soapbox declamations) as in the purposefully MOR (in the Dionne Warwick sense of the word) breezes of “Pack Yr Romantic Mind.” The album’s centerpiece, however, is the eighteen-minute “Jenny Ondioline,” a blissfully chaotic, mantra-like excursion that ebbs and flows with an intensity reminiscent of “Sister Ray”: Gane’s automatic strum acts as a bed of nails that somehow supports the floats of vocals and synthesizers without puncturing them. Elektra also released an EP, different from the British issue, featuring a pared down version of “Jenny Ondioline” accompanied by three tracks, including the otherwise unavailable “Fruition.”
It would’ve been hard to top that creative burst, and Mars Audiac Quintet does suffer a bit in comparison. With O’Hagan taking an active but non-membership part (leaving room for the arrival of keyboardist Katharine Gifford), the band’s approach isn’t all that different, but there’s a discernible lowering of intensity on the more overtly rockist tracks. It’s still a kick to hear Sadier trill sweetly through missives like “Nihilist Assault Group” — a song that echoes the Sex Pistols saw about wanting nothing so much as to create “more bands like us.” In another of Stereolab’s familiar tributes to bizarro-world ancestors, “International Colouring Contest” samples a zinging bit of exotica called “Into Outer Space With Lucia Pamela” (a vintage space-age pop singer); the track is far more otherworldly than those of any of Stereolab’s more determinedly shticky peers.
In some ways, that disc seems to mark the end of an era for Stereolab. As evidenced by Emperor Tomato Ketchup‘s sexy trip-hop styled opener, “Metronomic Underground” (which could pass for a Tricky remix), the fairly precise borders the band laid out for itself have been torn down-or at least penetrated with enough holes to allow for some cross-cultural pollination. Even the more traditionally ‘Lab-ish tracks are marked by subtle twists, like the live string section that punctuates the Europop “Cybele’s Reverie.” Sadier’s Marxist musings have grown even more pointed — songs like “Tomorrow Is Already Here” would have her walking unemployment lines alongside Dalton Trumbo back in the ’50s — and her delivery is considerably more earthy.
Refried Ectoplasm, which compiles compilation cuts, outtakes and single tracks of the post-Switched On period, is a terrific get-acquainted visit with the band’s ever-changing moods. In addition to self-explanatory mood pieces like “Harmonium” and “Farfisa,” the thirteen-song set contains a previously unreleased “country” (the band’s designation, not necessarily a factual description) reworking of the airy “Tone Burst.”
Music for the Amorphous Body Study Centre comes from a gallery installation in which Stereolab provided the “soundtrack” for Charles Long’s interactive soft sculptures. At the show, one experienced each ambient piece through headphones plugged into the individual work for which it was designed, in terms of both theme and acoustics. One of the pricey artworks might be an impractical stereo system add-on, but those headphones will enhance your appreciation of this disc, as well as the rest of the band’s catalogue.