A Brief Guide to Stereolab

Stereolab-1244Unpacking the complete history of Stereolab in detail would require a book—or several. The U.K. outfit, who released a near constant stream of music in the 1990s and 2000s, seemed more like a free-floating project than a group (or “groop,” as they often called themselves). Embracing retrofuturist aesthetics (both in album titles and artwork), hard-left viewpoints, and a general creative restlessness, Stereolab created a daunting back catalog that is as rewarding to listen to as it is challenging to navigate. The group’s initial core of English guitarist Tim Gane and French singer and multi-instrumentalist Laetitia Sadier, gradually expanded to include Australian-born, London-based vocalist/guitarist Mary Hansen, who harmonized with Sadier brilliantly, and Andy Ramsay, whose steady and skilled work on drums became a key hallmark of Stereolab both live and in the studio.

Stereolab-600-1Though never netting anything like mainstream commercial success, Stereolab’s subcultural relevance remained constant throughout their career. The combination of ’70s experimental rock and ’60s pop fizz associated with their early period may be their defining sound, but Stereolab didn’t stay in that self-carved niche for long. Instead, they drew in everything from older, abstract electronics and contemporary jazz, to exploratory ambient and non-Western sounds. They faced a terrible tragedy in 2002, when Hansen was killed in a London traffic accident. Stereolab continued, but there was an increasing sense of rumination and exhaustion that made their 2009 hiatus announcement feel almost inevitable. Gane, Sadier, Ramsay, and other members pursued various projects in the interim, yet their upcoming string of reunion dates in combination with an extensive set of reissues is a serendipitous return, with Sadier speaking frankly about how her lyrical concerns still seem all too suited for the worldwide sociopolitical moment.

The following list doesn’t touch on all of the groups releases—to say nothing of the side projects and guest appearances that appeared both during the band’s original run and after—but it’ll give you a vivid introduction into the world of Stereolab.

Stereolab-600-4

The Essentials

Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements

Their first total masterwork, Transient bursts with energy and drive, combining a Velvet Underground-via-motorik sense of constant sonic motion and a suave, sharp sense of verve that’s indebted to classic French pop and jazz of the 1960s. (“Pack Yr Romantic Mind” in particular seems like it belongs on a lost soundtrack from that time.) The 15-plus-minute long “Jenny Ondioline” was the album’s core, and a regular live standard for years, but the charging “Crest” sums up the band best. Its entire lyric, regularly repeated and coolly sung: “If there’s been a way to build it / There’ll be a way to destroy it / Things are not all that out of control.”

Emperor Tomato Ketchup

By the time of Emperor, Stereolab had already established enough of a sound that they began the project of subtly avoiding repetition. The monstrously tight groove on album opener “Metronomic Underground” pays gleeful tribute to the legendary German group Can, and from there Emperor makes its way across 13 tracks that shows ever increasing range. Given what they’d already shown, that’s saying something; but whether it’s the easy listening but lyrically fierce condemnation of political apathy on “The Noise of Carpet” or the peppy pulse of “Les Yper-Sound,” Emperor is one highlight after another.

Dots and Loops

Divisive at the time of release, Dots and Loops found Stereolab steering away from a rock ‘n’ roll-oriented sound towards a smooth merger of pop, jazz, and experimental electronic music—a decision underscored by their choice of producers. Working with the band on separate sessions, key Tortoise member John McEntire and Microdisney veteran/High Llamas leader Sean O’Hagan created an album that, perhaps ironically, used emerging digital technology as a way of underscoring their backward-glancing nods, resulting often intriguing songs like the lead single “Miss Modular” and another lengthy epic, “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse.” Though it’s a polarizing LP—I tend to prefer the versions of these songs as featured on their BBC sessions comp ABC Music—it’s remained a major favorite for many, arriving at probably their peak of their popularity in America.

Stereolab-600-2

The Deeper Cuts

Mars Audiac Quintet

Arriving one year after the appearance of Transient, Mars almost seems like it would be fated to be lost in that album’s shadow. But it’s no stopgap, building on their initial splash with another clutch of songs that explore the sonic, social, and aesthetic legacies of recent decades. The bright sonic cheer of “Ping Pong” quickly became a major fan favorite; Sadier and Hansen’s delivery of lines like “Bigger slump and bigger wars and a smaller recovery” are all the more barbed in impact. Another favorite, “Transona Five,” marries a classic glam rock rhythm chug (think Bowie’s “The Jean Genie” or Sweet’s “Blockbuster”) with lyrical reminders of death’s inevitability.

Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night 

Cobra was often seen as the “return” of Stereolab to a particular sonic approach after Dots and Loops, but it’s more accurately an extension, underscored in part by the continuing involvement of Sean O’Hagan and John McEntire, not to mention other musicians such as Jim O’Rourke. If there’s a moodier feeling on Cobra, with the shadowy power of this album’s epic length entry, “Blue Milk,” songs like “The Free Design” and “Come Andy Play in the Milky Night” provide poppier contrasts in turn, while retaining their particular lyrical vision.

Sound-Dust

Sound-Dust plays a grim role in the Stereolab story—it’s the last full album featuring Hansen before her death the following year. Given how the band had to adjust and carry on for the rest of the ‘00s, it’s easy to look at Sound-Dust as a last, unexpected flowering of their original run. Better to consider it as what it is: an often sparkling variation on their recent sonic shifts, again featuring the participation of simpatico figures like O’Hagan, McEntire, and O’Rourke. Standout songs include the lead single “Captain Easychord,” the Chris Morris-derived “Nothing To Do With Me” and the wryly titled “Nought More Terrific Than Man.”

Stereolab-600-5

The Completists

Refried Ectoplasm [Switched On Volume 2]

Albums aren’t enough when it comes to discussing Stereolab’s legacy, thanks to a constant churn of singles, one-offs, and compilation appearances from the very start. The Switched On series aimed to collect a slew of these over the years, and the second in that series perfectly captures more of their sound and approach from the Transient through Emperor albums in particular. “Lo Boob Oscillator,” another easy-going Velvets/glam chug sonically, became one of their standards, while two tracks were collaborations with Nurse With Wound’s Steven Stapleton, exploring the outer reaches of their sound with inspired, chaotic skill.

Aluminum Tunes [Switched On Volume 3] 

The final Switched On collection was also the longest, originally released as a two-CD/three-album collection that took in everything from music Stereolab contributed to an art installation to Wagon Christ’s remix of their monumental “Metronomic Underground.” A variety of enjoyable covers they did during the mid ‘90s also take a bow here, including the theme to the iconic U.K. gangster movie Get Carter and an interpretation of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “One Note Samba,” done for a volume in the Red Hot series of AIDS fundraisers. (A favorite song title from this collection: “The Long Hair of Death.”)

Oscillons From the Anti-Sun

Even the Switched On series didn’t collect everything Stereolab did beyond their albums—the EPs they released on Duophonic, including the singles drawn from those albums, contained a slew of further tracks, variations and remixes in turn. Oscillons served as a welcome collection focusing on those releases—admittedly resequenced into a new overall presentation, it’s still an often dazzling demonstration of both the band’s steady consistency and their artistic achievements in equal measure. “Nihilist Assault Group (parts 1, 2 and 3)” is a standout but that’s just one of many throughout.

-Ned Raggett

3 Comments

  1. Andy
    Posted May 31, 2019 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Switched On is what I fell in love with. Loved this band!

  2. Jimdrude
    Posted May 25, 2019 at 2:39 am | Permalink

    Probably my favourite ever groop since “discovering” them via their first Peel Session. I like the guide but surely the first studio album “Peng” and the original “Switched On” should be in there.

  3. Robert
    Posted May 24, 2019 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Nice guide! I must admit I find Mars Audiac Quintet to be much the best, but that’s probably because it’s the first one I heard from them so it has a special place in my heart. 💛

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s