Artist Spotlight: Stereolab

Retro-futurism is a dead aesthetic. Past ideas of what the future will look like always seem impossibly quaint in hindsight, and pointing that out amounts to kicking the past when it’s down. And yet there was one band who managed to take this sentiment and use it to craft some of the warmest, most achingly beautiful and uplifting music of the modern age, while somehow keeping their style fresh for twenty-plus years. With their signature blend of Krautrock played with bubbly synth drones, weird science fictiony noises, and gorgeous, effervescent female vocals, Stereolab helped create one of independent rock’s defining sounds, and remained one of its leading purveyors of pure sonic beauty, steadily promoting their brand of artful Leftist optimism through multiple lineup changes, tenuous label situations, and at least one horrible tragedy.

Formed in 1990 by French vocalist Laetitia Sadier and English guitarist Tim Gane1, the Groop (as they would become known) originally played a blend of lounge-infused motorik pop that was heavily indebted to shoegaze. With Joe Dilworth (drums) and Martin Kean (bass) serving as rhythm section, Tim and Laetitia’s songwriting comes across as an intersection of cultural elements from three European nations: England (they filled the mix with bright, gurgling keyboard sounds and lush guitar tones that would make My Bloody Valentine proud), France (Laetitia sings in both English and French), and Germany (the Teutonic stylings of Kraftwerk and Can serving as obvious touchstones, plus there’s the way Laetitia’s vocals are delivered in an affectless monotone, like a version of Nico with range). Their early singles and EPs were collected by Too Pure Records as a compilation album called Switched On (1992, A), and Stereolab’s dedication to warm, soothing beauty and upbeat, welcoming tones is evident right away. This collection basically amounts to the same song ten times (in the case of “Au Grand Jour,” it is literally the same song recorded two different ways) – sometimes a bit slower, sometimes more bitter-sounding, sometimes much longer, but all with the same listener-friendly sound and mellow, comforting vibe. Stereolab know exactly what they are, and tracks like “High Expectation” and “The Way Will Be Opening” seek to make a space right in your heart with their simple, minimalist pleasures.

Peng! (1992, B+) is the official debut album, and if the songwriting isn’t as sharp as the material collected for Switched On, the band’s sound has not lost an ounce of its appeal. Lots of repetitive fuzzy chord vamps, very simple and enjoyable melodies, and hauntingly beautiful vocals, all presented as a sort of parallel-universe brand of experimental lounge pop. The band is on some kind of old-fashioned space age groove on minor-key lullabies like “K-Stars” and “Super Falling Star”, which represent their most promising directions so far, while “Perversion” and “You Little Shits” add rhythmic variation, almost coming across as reminiscent of early-90’s mainstream R&B. Finally, the two closing tracks, “Stomach Worm” and “Surrealchemist” are more prolonged, exploratory compositions that reveal the band’s legitimate post-rock tendencies.

The uncommonly straightforward title of Stereolab’s next EP, The Groop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (1993, A-), makes it clear what this band’s approach is shooting for. They’re approximating some kind of outdated-yet-weirdly-timeless kitsch, whether it’s through evoking forgotten groups like Neu! or The Free Design, professing their dedication to Marxist ideals in their lyrics, or incorporating old-timey instruments like Moogs, farfisas, or marimbas in their sound. Crucially, these are the first Stereolab recordings to include Australian band member Mary Hansen on vocals and guitar, and her contributions instantly upgrade the band’s sound into a three-dimensional tapestry of droning instrumental layers and harmonious counterpoint singing. Laetitia and Mary have impeccable chemistry together as co-vocalists immediately, her richer alto contrasting with Mary’s more naïve and childlike approach. The effect risks sounding too twee for its own good, but Stereolab always remain devoted enough to aural elegance to avoid becoming too saccharine, and on both versions of “We’re Not Adult Orientated” they bring enough infectious energy to help the listener to power through the EP’s more indulgent moments.

Major labels were taking a chance on just about everything in the early 90s, so perhaps that can explain why Elektra signed Stereolab and released Transient Random Noise-Bursts With Announcements (B+) in 1993. Bassist Duncan Brown, second guitarist/organist Sean O’Hagen and drummer Andy Ramsay joined the band on the previous EP2, and with their assistance, the band begins to branch out from the interchangeable two-chord rock grooves of their early stuff. “Golden Ball” piles all manner of quirkily-arranged sounds over its super-simple bassline, “Jenny Ondioline” deceptively goes from normal, lovely little Stereolab song to stretching its meandering melody to nearly the twenty-minute mark, and “Pack Yr Romantic Mind” brings to mind an almost cheesy love ballad from the pre-rock n’ roll era. By contrast, Mars Audiac Quintet (B+, 1994) brings Stereolab back to their basic elements, peaking super-early with opener “Three Dee Melodie,” as Laetitia and Mary trade off a series of simply delightful hooks, over a single upbeat droning synth chord. Songs like “Ping Pong” and “Outer Accelerator” continue to reinforce the core Stereolab sound, which is to say they create absolutely outstanding, rhythmically-pleasing waves of sparkling harmonic sound and voice, while the tracks that stray too far from their comfort zone like “International Colouring Contest” or “The Stars Our Destination” don’t feel nearly as successful. Although these first two major-label releases showcase a band with a desire to grow beyond their already-wonderful established identity, they don’t yet prove they can convincingly morph into different types of bands while still retaining that center.

In between studio albums3, Stereolab kept right on recording EPs, splits, and 7” singles on Too Pure and Duophonic, and by 1995 they had enough material for another collection, Refried Ectoplasm: Switched On, vol. 2 (A). I don’t know if it’s the fact that these tracks were released on smaller labels, or if they’re just more comfortable exploring different approaches in a shorter non-album format, but there are several songs here that absolutely blow away anything on their run of studio albums so far. When was the last time you heard anything from them as confident as “John Cage Bubblegum”, or the minor-key rocker “French Disko”? These are the kinds of songs a band releases when they know exactly what they are, and how best to maximize their strengths on tight, efficient jams. Some of this stuff is too similar to superior album tracks, so it’s easier to see why they weren’t included (“Exploding Head Movie” is basically just a recycled version of the riff from “Jenny Ondioline”), but is there any particular reason why “Eloge D’Eros” didn’t make it into any of their album sessions? It’s one of the best songs they ever did, with a subtle little vocal trick that I don’t think I’ve ever heard anywhere else – the background singer starts out singing higher than the main vocal, until her voice gradually drops down several notes, and suddenly it’s ending on a much lower register than the lead melody. It’s this kind of songwriting cleverness that keeps Stereolab from getting stale, no matter how homogenous the overall mood and vibe of their music feels sometimes.

From the opening bars of the Krautrock-infused trip-hop track “Metronomic Underground”, which builds and crescendos for nearly eight minutes, it’s clear that Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996, A) is not going to be your typical Stereolab album. The Groop has fully evolved, and their playing and arranging skills have improved to the point where their consistent approach is now versatile enough to accommodate the celebratory 7/4 organ rock of “Motoroller Scalatron,” the string quartet backing of “Cybele’s Reverie,” and the driving new wave-ish “Les Yper Sound,” all while maintaining a steady, hypnotic rhythm and delivering earwormy melodies with deadly efficiency. Laetitia and Mary’s vocal trade-offs remain as angelic and heavenly as ever, alternating between cool, repetitious scatting and haunting harmonic accompaniments. This is Stereolab reaching their actual potential, and proving they could find new ways to apply their reliably pleasurable method to all kinds of different styles, while providing enough substantial tunefulness and dynamic production to transcend even their own unique sound and ideology.

After pushing themselves to the limits of their most diverse genre exploration, Stereolab take another opportunity to refine their more constant tendencies on Dots And Loops (1997, A-), which nonetheless further augments their sonic palette with more horns, strings, electronic sounds, and more vintage percussive instruments like vibraphone, marimba, and acoustic bass. Meanwhile, the songwriting leans harder than ever into the band’s lounge-jazzy side, often evoking the kind of dreamy, psychedelic soundtrack you’d hear in a “swinging London”-style foreign film from the 60s. The synths still shimmer and there is occasionally a guitar-driven moment or two, but for the most part this release takes Stereolab farther than ever from any kind of traditional rock music. The only familiar element that still remains is Laetitia and Mary’s vocals, which continue to perfectly support and complement one another until they essentially blend together as a singular unit, the two of them exchanging slightly doo-wop-reminiscent melodic figures and utterly lovely lyrical purrs, designed to relax the mind and soothe the soul. That the actual lyrics happen to be concerned with radical anti-capitalist sentiment just adds another layer of intrigue to the band’s sense of purpose.

The hits just keep on coming with Aluminum Tunes (1998, A-), part 3 of the Switched On series, a double-album collection of more assorted singles and stray tracks. Stereolab could seemingly do no wrong for a good chunk of the nineties here. A few tracks are a little background-ish4, while others are too homogenous or too overly focused on being hypnotic or whatever, but when the songs really hit paydirt with a dope melody5 or an endlessly catchy little riff or a bizarre noise drone or a nine-minute samba or something, it totally makes sitting through a lot of their less adventurous material feel worth it. If you like Stereolab’s early sound at all, you really can’t go wrong with any of these compilation releases, or the studio albums from the same period, for that matter. Now a double-album is a lot to take from them, so you may not necessarily want to start with this collection, but once you’re initiated, this stuff plays like absolute manna from heaven every time. I cannot claim you will be able to tell every song apart, but I can pretty much guarantee you’ll enjoy the majority of them, and that’s a special thing.

Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night (1999, B-) and Sound-Dust (2001, B) both push the band further beyond the limits of their original sound, into somewhat square territory encompassing quaint psychedelia, non-rock lounge, swing, space age pop, and even ambient soundtrack music, with a lot of dreamy, droning, tinkly noises and arrangements so lush you can practically cut shag carpets out of them. The tempos are almost uniformly slow, to the point where the more upbeat rock-adjacent songs (“Captain Easychord”, “Infinity Girl”) are now starting to sound a little out of place. Stereolab have always been a little in love with quiet, obsolete and somewhat childlike musical genres, but this stuff is so hushed and subdued that you actually start to wonder whether you really have stumbled upon some weird interplanetary 70s AM radio station by mistake. The still-reliable vocal dualism is basically the only element that remains from their classic period, although the songwriting also does remember to at least add a few hooks here and there (“Blips, Drips, And Strips” has some of my favorite quirky off-timing from them), as if they are aware they might have a few fans left who are not necessarily as obsessed with reviving the same cheesy old-timey sounds as they are.

Mary Hansen was killed in a tragic bicycle accident in 2002, robbing the world of one of its sweetest voices and the band of one of its most important members. The first new music to emerge in the wake of this tragedy was the five-song EP Instant 0 In The Universe (2003, B+) which kicks off with the song “…Sudden Stars” 6, a loving lullaby that abruptly turns into distorted-guitar rock before shifting back to its main melody, as Laetitia intones the words:

But if you must
And if you must
If you must go, go–

The wind will take you
It will lift you
Across the ocean

Into the sky
Towards the sun
It will take you, high–

Sweet smelling wind
L’amour de ma vie
When you’re ready
Mon bel amour
Simply come to me.

A farewell and a welcoming at the same time, it is an uncommonly moving and heartfelt sentiment for a Stereolab song, and a fitting tribute to their beloved friend and fallen angel. Laetitia is back to overdubbing her own backup vocals (as she did before Mary joined the band), but in a lonelier way than before. The band’s approach has also shifted back to allowing some actual rock influences back into their mix, including some electric guitar and driving drumbeats. This is where they begin to write “split” songs, that cut themselves off halfway through and transition into completely different arrangements and styles for the remainder of the duration. The shuffling organ-heavy tempo of “Mass Riff” gives way to a heavy disco-funk rhythm, and the weird, abstract sounding “Good Is Me” soon turns into a normal, almost country-western fingerpicked guitar part. It almost sounds as if they’re picking up the pieces of their fragmented identity, trying to figure out how to move forward with what they still have left.

On Margerine Eclipse (2004, B) it still doesn’t sound like they’ve put themselves back together again yet. Glowing rays of hope shine through in the ultra-simple “Margerine Rock” and the adorable plinkety keyboards and fuzzed out organ chords of “Bop Scotch” alongside uneasy cut-up experiments like “La Demeure” and “Margerine Melodie”. It doesn’t all work, but the band is making an honest effort to reconcile their no-frills early Krautgaze style with the loungey sci-fi bachelor pad elevator music of their later period, all while newly incorporating a marked electronic influence, all WITHOUT one of the most crucial pieces of their classic era. The three-disc (and one DVD) set Oscillons From The Anti-Sun (2005, A-) compiles yet another round-up of EPs spanning all the albums they recorded while Mary was still alive and contributing. Swinging melodies like the sunny “Young Lungs” and “You Used To Call Me Sadness”, darker minor-key drones like “Les Aimies des Mêmes” and headlong sugar-rush rockers like “Escape Pod (From The World Of Medical Observations)” showcase the range and versatility of this band at full strength. Mary herself takes the lead on “Long Life Love”, detailing a typically oddball story in a joyful, repetitive melody, while Laetitia backs her up with a wordless vocal line that ascends into the heavens.

Fab Four Suture (2006, A-) qualifies as yet another amazing collection of singles from a band who somehow, after all they’ve been through, still shows zero signs of creative exhaustion. It’s as if making the music that they love keeps them eternally young. “Interlock” is a bass-and-trumpet-driven funk rocker that contains Laetitia’s coolest, most dynamic vocal in years, while “Whisper Pitch” finds some genuine melancholy in its haunting, fluttering melody. The songs are still taking bizarre detours, but they seem to hold their foundations together a little better than on previous releases. Chemical Chords (2008, B) may just be the safest album the band has ever done, to the point that it almost feels like they’re going out of their way to leave just one consistent, comprehensible statement behind. Stereolab have been around long enough at this point to recognize that elegant beauty and poppy energy constitute a big part of their appeal. These sounds are definitely more earthbound than they’ve typically been, making for a fun, grounded album that is filled with bouncy rhythms, fuzzy hypnotic tones, and enjoyably simple pleasures7. Stereolab doing what they do best, basically. The songwriting may not always be top-notch, but it reliably delivers loveliness, cleverness, and a whole mess of fun, interesting sounds.

Stereolab announced they were going on indefinite hiatus in 2009 (that’s bad), along with the forthcoming release of additional material recorded during the Chemical Chords sessions (that’s good!). The Groop weren’t about to leave us haning without a new set of blissful tunes to groove to, and Not Music (2010, B+) constitutes their last recorded statement to this day. If they never record together again, it can at least be noted definitively that they never made a bad album, as Not Music yet again shows off this band’s facility for tight, simple melodies, fancy, delicious sounds, and slightly off-kilter songwriting. No wonder Chemical Chords felt so “safe” – they saved all they risky tracks for this release. Interesting choices abound in the singing and arrangements, making for a similar-yet-weirder companion album, plus a couple of remixes by Emperor Machine and Atlas Sound, making the case that in another life, Stereolab may just have broken through as hip hop or EDM producers.

NOT REVIEWED: I never did get around to the 2000 EP First Of The Microbe Hunters, and I apologize for not including it in this writeup. If I know anything about that period of Stereolab, it’s definitely worth checking out. Stereolab also have a number of career-spanning retrospective compilations available, including Serene Velocity: A Stereolab Anthology and ABC Music: The Radio 1 Sessions which I haven’t listened to, but judging by the track listings, they are utterly fantastic works and you should hear them immediately, if not sooner. This band embodied a certain brand of detached 90s cool, sure, but they also exuded joy and wonder in almost every song they ever did. They even weathered a devastating personal loss that should have destroyed them as a recording unit, and while they were never quite the same after, they still continued to put a great deal of care and effort into producing quality material, right down to the end. I really cannot praise them enough, and I can only hope their legacy in the history of independent music remains strong.

Dedicated to Mary, 1966-2002. RIP.