Music Discoveries: Stereolab

I had two chances to become a Stereolab superfan.  The first was 20-something years ago when my college radio station hosted a concert with two bands.  I didn’t usually like the bands the radio station got to play but I think it was close to mandatory for DJs to attend this concert.  I ended up getting into the Stereolab sat and dancing manically as they finished off their set with an extended, repetitive jam (I’m pretty sure now that it was “Jenny Ondioline”).  Yet, I was somehow incurious about getting any of this band’s music to listen to.

A dozen years ago, a hip young co-worker recommend Stereolab to me and told me their two best albums are Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night. I got these two albums, and loved them, and have listened to them over and over, and yet I still failed to seek out other music by Sterolab.  Until now!

Stereolab is a band based in London, England lead by the songwriting team of Laetitia Sadier (vocals/keyboard/guitar) and Tim Gane (guitar/keyboards).  Sadier is French, Gane is English, and their rotating line of band mates have included Australian and Irish members, lending an international feel.  Musically, Stereolab is defined by ethereal vocals sung over synthesizers, repetitive rhythms, and droning sounds.  Their sound incorporates 60s lounge music and Krautrock with a 90s indie music sensibility.

One thing I have a challenge with is listening to lyrics.  This is especially true for a band like Stereolab where half of their songs are in French, but even in English the lyrics get lost in the mix.  So I made an effort to read the lyrics online for all the songs on the albums below.  Even in print, the lyrics can be inscrutable in a poetic way, and the song titles hardly ever seem to relate to the subject of the song.

What I learned is that despite the upbeat, jangly pop sound, Stereolab is a fervently political band.  Their song lyrics focus on left-wing themes of class oppression, anti-war, and social revolution.  The ideas of isolation and cultural disconnect also resonate strongly.  There is a positive aspect to the song lyrics as Sadier often seems to be cheering on the listener to achieve a better and more honest version of themselves, contrary to what they may have been told by societal norms.

Stereolab is a prolific band, churning out albums, EPs, and singles at a frenetic pace, especially in their first decade.  I tried to listen to every studio album and compilation I could find.  Individual album reviews are below, but the general feeling I have is that in the 1990s, Stereolab was an absolutely brilliant band.  The music of the 2000s is still good, but it seems redundant and just less exciting.

Album: Switched On
Release date: 1992
Favorite tracks: “Superelectric” and “Au Grand Jour'”
Thoughts:  Collection of early singles and EPs.  Fascinating that the Stereolab sound is there in its infant form and this collection actually holds together well as an album.
Rating: ***

Album: Peng!
Release date: 1992
Favorite tracks: “Super Falling Star,” “Perversion,” and “Mellotron’
Lyrics of Note:

“Curiosity was far greater than our fear
It felt so simple and so prodigious at the same time
Incredible things are happening in the world
Magical things are happening in this world
Across the river there are all kinds of magical instruments
While really we keep on living like monkeys
Incredible things are happening in the world
Magical things are happening in this world” – Peng! 33

Thoughts: More guitar, reminded that this was recorded at the peak of grunge era on some tracks. Good start.
Rating: ***

Album: Space Age Bachelor Pad Music
Release date: 22 March 1993
Favorite tracks: “We’re Not Adult Oriented”
Thoughts: Spare and dreamy, picking up steam on final tracks
Rating: ***

AlbumTransient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements
Release Date: August 1993
Favorite tracks: “Pack Yr Romantic Mind,” “Jenny Ondioline,”
Thoughts: Guitar-heavy on many tracks, reminiscent of contemporary bands like Breeders, Belly, and My Bloody Valentine.
Rating: ***1/2

AlbumMars Audiac Quintet
Release Date: 9 August 1994
Favorite tracks: “Three Longers Later,” “Transports Sans Bouger,” and “Fiery Yellow.”
Thoughts: Really embraces the lounge and bouncy pop of the 60s but with a 90s aesthetic. More accessible without making sacrifices.
Rating: ***1/2

Album: Refried Ectoplasm
Release Date: July 1995
Favorite tracks: ” Lo Boob Oscillator,” “French Disko,” “Animal or Vegetable [A Wonderful Wooden Reason],” “Farfisa,” and “Tempter”
Lyrics of Note:

Though this world’s essentially an absurd place to be living in
It doesn’t call for total withdrawal

I’ve been told it’s a fact of life
Men have to kill one another
Well I say there are still things worth fighting for

La Resistance!

Though this world’s essentially an absurd place to be living in
It doesn’t call for total withdrawal

It said human existence is pointless
As acts of rebellious solidarity
Can bring sense in this world

La Resistance! – French Disko

Thoughts: Continually impressed by the quality and quantity of music churned out by Stereolab during this period.  Hard to believe this is a compilation of singles and EPs rather than an album.  They’re like the Beatles ca. 1962-66 where some of their best stuff doesn’t even make it on an album.
Rating: ****

Album: Emperor Tomato Ketchup
Release Date: April 1996
Favorite tracks: “Metronomic Underground,” “Cybele’s Reverie,” “Les Yper-Sound,” “The Noise of Carpet,” “Emperor Tomato Ketchup,” and “Anonymous Collective.”
Lyrics of Note:

“I hate to see your broken face
This world would give you anything
As long as you will want to
As long as you will want to
I hate your state of hopelessness
And that vain articulateness
Your loser type wreck want to be
Not a pretty sight really
In another world it’d be funny

I hate to see your broken face
A lazy life of fatal waste
Of fashionable cynicism
The poison they want you to drink
Oh no man that’s too easy
Oh no man that’s too easy
We weren’t talking bout happiness
Apply your leading potential
To be useful to this planet
The world would give you anything
As long as you will want to
As long as you will want to” – The Noise of Carpet

Thoughts: This is an album I’ve listened to hundreds of times, but listening to it after all of the albums Stereolab released prior to this album it’s hard not to just say “wow!”  Not to be deterministic, but Stereolab was building toward this over the previous four years.  A masterpiece!
Rating: *****

Album: Dots and Loops
Release Date: 23 September 1997
Favorite tracks: “The Flower Called Nowhere,” “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse,” and “Parsec,”
Thoughts: Return to a sunny 60s lounge-pop sound, slower tunes lacking the propulsive drumbeat. The track “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse” appears to be a 15 minute history of electronic music.  Drum & bass

Lyrics of Note:

“Searching news ways of laughing
ones whereby one could
express and transform
all the shattering
all the gratuitious
the burdens of guilt
growing these new ways
will dawn on us if
we look hard enough
searching and finding” from Prisoner on Mars

Rating: ***1/2

AlbumCobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night
Release Date: 21 September 1999
Favorite tracks: “Fuses,” “People Do It All the Time,” “Italian Shoes Continuum,” “Puncture in the Radax Permutation,” and “Blue Milk.”
Thoughts: Stereolab takes another step forward by adding jazz and hints of Latin music to their sound. Another masterpiece.
Lyrics of note:

“We who’re young and beautiful
We who can stand up and walk
Our lives we will learn to control
We who’re young and beautiful
Respond revolution when
We hear the word suffering” – from Op Hop Detonation

Rating: ****1/2

Album: The First of the Microbe Hunters
Release Date: 16 May 2000
Favorite tracks: “Outer Bongolia,” and “I Feel the Air [Of Another Planet]

Lyrics of Note:

The appeal of a consequence
Perfect as it couldn’t say no
Met by a cold body of air
A presence under humid air
He will take it to the water
He will swim and swim on further
The ocean is deep and salted
There reign a world of the mermaid
The imagined profuse
Leaving a man confused
The story was short-lived
Not before long after” – from “I Feel the Air [Of Another Planet]

Thoughts: Kind of sounds like bog-standard Stereolab which is never a bad thing, but disappointing following the brilliance of their previous albums.
Rating: ***

Album: Sound-Dust
Release Date: 28 August 2001
Favorite tracks: “Space Moth,” “Captain Easychord,” and “Nothing to Do With Me

Lyrics of Note:

“Dive in, the heart of extremes,
All assembled in a style,
Extremes reconciled

Rational and poetical,
Summing up contradictions
Lyrical departure
Formal unity
All in one

Intimate sensuality
Big and cold non places of concrete
Art and social action
Freedom and control
All in one

Utopia and reality,
Hand in hand all this way
Dedicate to change that it can’t bring about

It failed but succeeded
It failed but succeeded” – Baby Lulu

Thoughts: Holy crap, is that disco?  Stereolab-style with marimbas? Is that a country twang on the guitar? Are those soulful horns? Is that a smooth love song or just a cry of the universal disconnect of humanity?  This album starts out strong and there are a lot of new sounds for Stereolab although it eventually melts into a melodic drone of sameness.
Rating: ***1/2

Album: Margerine Eclipse
Release Date:  27 January 2004
Favorite tracks: “Cosmic Country Noir,” “Margerine Rock,” and  “Feel and Triple”

Lyrics of Note:

“After such distance
Come to me, precious being, come to me
After such ennui
Come to me, delicious, enfold me
After such a long drought
Here a place for flowers to flourish” – Sudden Stars

“The beauty of this creature
Could only be equaled by
The extent of its paradox
Only be equaled by

Because it wanted two things
Opposite and conflicting

It wanted the light
It wanted everything in sight
Wanted to dominate
Or at least to participate

But only in their comforts
Of its chair and its slippers” – Margerine Rock

Thoughts:Mary Hansen, Stereolab’s guitarist whose vocals interwove in such a lovely way with those of lead singer Laetitia Sadier, was killed in London in 2002 when a truck driver crashed into her bicycle. This album is partly a memorial to her, and as someone who cycles regularly I find it particularly profound. Technologically this album is mixed in dual mono which means that there are different vocal and instrumental tracks in each channel (just like old Beatles’ LPs). One can have fun listening to a song in just one ear bud and then switching ears.  The pace of the album is slow, and sadly it seems like Stereolab is just treading water musically.

Rating: **1/2

Album: Fab Four Suture
Release Date: 6 March 2006
Favorite tracks: “Excursions into ‘Oh, A-Oh'”
Lyrics of Note:

“To make it fun, to reason
Instant purpose
Had a thought, the linear cost
Of self-interest
Reveries are bandages
All-embracing” – Visionary Roadmaps

“We should never write ourselves off
See ourselves as the victims of
Various forces
It is always our decision
Tell me I am responsible

Satisfying feeling
Of connection maybe
Transatlantic tidings
Up on a mountain scene

It is what we live for
The calling to be
It is what we live for

It is always our decision
It’s the feeling of connection

Depends on our actions
Can’t see ourselves as the victims

It’s been a long time
Since anyone come to me to call on my deeper senses
Thank you so much
You spoke to me in a way that revived my life essences
It feels so good
Feels alive and relative

I can connect with the world” – Whisper Pitch

Thoughts: A number of previously released EPs and singles are “sutured together in a single album by design.  The lyrics are political and angry but still lost in sunny melodies.  While I like the lyrics, the music still seems like a bland pastiche of earlier Stereolab.
Rating: **1/2

Album: Chemical Chords
Release Date: 24 June 2008
Favorite tracks: “Pop Molecule [Molecular Pop 1]” and “Fractal Dream of a Thing,”
Thoughts: This album sees a return to shorter pop tunes with the 60s lounge vibe at the forefront.  Still not as good as their 90s recordings but more lively than they’ve sounded in some time.
Rating: ***

Stereolab went on hiatus in 2009 and released their last recording was released in 2010 (an album of outakes from Chemical Chords called Not Music).  I expect that the band is not going to get together again, but if they do I would love to see them in concert again.

So that’s my thoughts on Stereolab?  Are you a fan of Stereolab or is this the first you’ve heard of them?  What do you think of their music?  Let me know in the comments.

So my goal is to release a new Music Discovery every Wednesday but I’ve found it challenging to find the time to give all the recordings a fair and deep listening.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to get the next Music Discovery ready in time for next week, but if I do it will be about The New Pornographers.

Sponsor Us for the 2016 Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon

Hey!  Just want to share this again since the Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon is this Sunday!  You still have time to sponsor us and/or sign up to ride yourself!

On Sunday, June 5,  I will be riding with my 8-year-old son Peter in the Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon!   The Bike-A-Thon is always a fun event and it raise money for a terrific cause. This will be o…

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