While a far cry from their subsequent output, Switched On makes it evident that Stereolab possessed a distinctive sound from the beginning, a unique musical identity that differentiated them from other alternative bands of the era. While the material on Switched On is far more reminiscent of conventional rock music than their later works, with a considerably greater emphasis on guitarwork, many aspects of their artistic voice were already in place, including their signature dynamic of Laetitia Sadier's vocals superimposed over a mesmerizing, hypnotic drone.
The genesis of Stereolab lies in the British rock outfit McCarthy, led by Tim Gane, cofounder of Stereolab. That group certainly bore a noticeable resemblance to Gane's next project, and it was at a McCarthy concert that Gane first met his wife/musical collaborator Laetitia Sadier, which would lead to a momentous partnership between the British Gane and the French Sadier.
After McCarthy's dissolution Gane and Sadier created the group Stereolab, an extension of McCarthy on both a musical and lyrical level, though it was Sadier's vocals that truly separated Gane's previous rock enterprise from his current one.
Switched On offers a very clear glimpse of Stereolab's humble beginnings; a collection of the group's early singles, the album depicts the band attempting to establish their own voice to make their mark on the alternative music scene.
While they certainly stood out from their contemporaries at the time, their sound was hardly without precedent. Stereolab owes a great debt to the Krautrock scene, particularly groups like Faust, though Sadier's angelic (often French) vocals are a far cry from an unhinged man with a thick Germanic accent endlessly repeating the mantra, 'daddy, take the banana, tomorrow is Sunday.' This isn't a criticism of Faust, merely an attempt to illustrate the disparities between the two groups, a difference that particularly manifests itself in the fact that Stereolab's soundscapes focus more on axiomatically pleasing aesthetics, engrossing the listener with their innate beauty, while Faust often flirts with dissonance to further their own ends.
From a lyrical perspective, Stereolab inherits the socialist leanings of McCarthy, often imbuing the music with their political agenda.
Nevertheless the band's polemical tendencies are diluted by the fact that the way in which Sadier sings tends to be far more important than what she's actually singing, and thus the band's songs never sound like overt propaganda (not that I would otherwise object to socialist lyrics, save for the fact that they seem to clash with the band's sound; the purpose of Stereolab's music is to lull the listener into a state in which they grow lost in the music, and political jargon would only serve to snap the listener back to reality).
While Martin Kean (bassist), Joe Dilworth (drummer) and Gina Morris (backup vocals) certainly contribute to the album, the core sound of the group is derived from the efforts of the group's founders, Gane and Sadier. As alluded to here, Gane's guitarwork is more orthodox and straightforward than it would be in the future, but this isn't a criticism; he's quite impressive on the album, and hearing Stereolab rock in the conventional sense of the word is an intriguing novelty that all fans owe it to themselves to hear at least once.
Meanwhile it's Sadier's vocals that truly define the Stereolab sound. Coming across as something akin to a more emotive Nico, Sadier excels as a vocalist; her singing is simply entrancing, giving life to the music in a way that the cold precision of Krautrock never could.
Most importantly, even at this stage of their career Sadier and Gane's songwriting (the duo receives full credit for each track) is highly impressive, absorbing the listener with its idiosyncratic rhythms and inventive vocal hooks. From stellar, unorthodox rockers like the opener Super-Electric to unconventional pop gems like Doubt the tracks nearly all have something to offer, while the blend of Sadier's vocals and Gane's instrumentation is always fresh and exciting.
The album isn't perfect, of course; the nadir is Contact, an overlong behemoth with about as much musical progression as a standard ambient track, an equation that's hardly conducive to sustaining the listener's interest for around ten minutes. Normally Sadier's vocals are enough to salvage numbers like that, but for some misguided reason she's conspicuously absent from that track.
Nonetheless the album is quite strong, and extremely auspicious for a debut (that is, a debut of sorts; the first full fledged Stereolab album was Peng!, released the same year as Swicthed On). Obviously the band's sound would become far more refined, distinctive and complex in the years to come, and the majority of the tracks included here are somewhat rough around the edges. But Switched On remains a highly compelling, enjoyable listen, amounting to far more than a historical curiosity.
While the release of Switched On precedes it, Peng! was Stereolab's true debut; whereas the former compiled all of the band's early singles and B-sides, the latter was the group's first full length studio outing and their most ambitious endeavor to that point in their careers.
While Peng! lacks the lush, full sound that characterizes the band's later efforts, it compensates for this relative sonic thinness with an acute minimalistic charm that makes the songs all the more hypnotic.
The core dynamic that was already evident in the group's early singles, namely the blend of Sadier's stately, gorgeous vocals, Gane's highly accomplished musicianship and the duo's collaborative songwriting efforts has been translated onto Peng! fully intact from the band's earliest compositions.
Ergo Peng! is rather reminiscent of the material depicted on Switched On, as the two share the same basic musical foundation. There are some notable disparities, however; whereas the speed of the tracks on Switched On fluctuated throughout, engendering a measure of diversity into the proceedings, Peng! is composed almost exclusively of mid tempo numbers.
While one would assume that this static pace would breed apathy and boredom, such is not the case; for the time being this uniformity can even be construed as a major asset, as it manages to imbue the album with a greater sense of emotional resonance and structural cohesiveness.
While some will, quite understandably, bemoan the loss of fast, driving rockers and accelerated pop gems to keep the album fresh, it's not as if the album is bereft of diversity; there are still plentiful rockers, pop tunes and entrancing dirges, they simply tend to adhere to a uniform pace. After a never ending onslaught of mid tempo tracks one might start to crave an adrenaline rush to inject some additional energy to counteract any potential sonic lethargy, but the album never really seems the least bit enervated, and regardless of their respective speeds the tracks on Peng! remain compelling and involving for the full duration of their runtimes.
Regardless of their relative speeds, the songs on Peng! are very much in the mold of the tracks on Switched On from a qualitative and stylistic perspective, natural extensions of their earliest material. Gane and Sadier's songwriting is consistently strong throughout, as they effortlessly apply their idiosyncratic style to drone rockers, pretty soundscapes, moody, atmospheric interludes and slight yet creative pop tunes, placing their distinctive stamp upon each genre.
The comparisons with Krautrock are still apt, but the group manage to find a unique niche for themselves in the realm of alternative rock without coming across as plagiarists or a Faust tribute group. There are more than enough elements, from Sadier's seductive vocals to the group's incongruous socialist polemics, to distinguish themselves from their Germanic predecessors, casting Stereolab as as significant an influence on later alternative rock acts as groups like Faust and Can themselves.
Ultimately Peng! is a highly impressive debut, filled with great songs that are almost defiantly different from the output of most of the band's contemporaries on the alt rock scene. Stereolab's minimalistic origins are fascinating to contrast with their later, better known material, and in their own way are nearly as striking and entertaining as what're considered to be the group's peak products.
Stereolab's sophomore effort is already considerably more substantial than their prior work; the group had finally signed with a major record label, and with this achievement they were able to secure a far larger budget to work with and thus were able to pursue the loftier ambitions that had hitherto been unattainable for them due to technical limitations.
Stereolab's newfound major label status attracted new members, like bassist Duncan Brown and drummer Andy Ramsay, and this expansion enabled the group to further flesh out their compositions and helped Gane and Sadier better realize their musical visions. Meanwhile the band's superior studio production capabilities opened up new levels of sonic exploration for the group, likewise imbuing their material with a new depth and richness that was unimaginable with the erstwhile thin, wispy production that was all that was affordable on their prior outings.
Admittedly the album doesn't open on a very auspicious note. Tone Burst establishes a decent enough groove, but it never betrays any signs of musical progression; even worse, toward the end of the song's runtime it degenerates into archetypal Krautrock dissonance with a distinctively industrial flavor.
The group had always been at their best when they were influenced or inspired by Krautrock, but never when they actively emulated it. The band's greatest strength stemmed from their capacity to take the experimentalism and instrumental precision that typified Krautrock and pass it through a melodic filler that would enable them to retain these virtues while allowing them to evade the innate pitfalls of the genre like grating discordance and cacophonous aural onslaughts; on Tone Burst they simply succumb to the worst excesses of their predecessors at the expense of their own unique identity that they'd been endeavoring to fashion on their prior releases.
Fortunately that track is the exception to the rule, as most of the remaining numbers are quite accomplished and exhibit the rapid artistic growth of a band that's still ostensibly in an embryonic state. Tracks like Analogue Rock contain utterly infectious grooves, while Crest betters that track with its irresistible drive and stellar riff.
The centerpiece of the album, however, is the nearly twenty minute long multipart Jenny Ondioline; this is one of those rare tracks when all of the band's ambitions and experimental tendencies come to their fruition in a stunning tour de force, as the suite features everything from inventive pop to ambitious epic rock to mesmerizing backward guitar solos. Ever dynamic, the track always introduces a new musical idea before the song can grow wearying, and the result is a creative triumph from a group whose disparate artistic aspirations are finally beginning to cohere into a singular musical vision, with each unique element perfectly gelling together.
While the band's core sound has expanded, it's still based upon the same fundamental elements that had served them so well in the past. Sadier's vocals remain as entrancing as ever, with highlights like her brilliant performance on Pack Yr Romantic Mind, a number that sounds more like a traditional song than most entries in Stereolab's canon and is all the stronger for it.
Meanwhile the sound, for the time being, remains very guitar oriented; while the band would soon distance themselves from conventional guitarwork as a crucial component of their arrangements, for the time being Gane is given the chance to excel at the instrument, and as always he acquits himself most admirably in this department, displaying keen musicianship and tastefulness in each note he plays.
The other returning members, as well as the new recruits, further augment the band's musical foundation, giving it more layers and accordingly a more complex sound. This dynamic is the precursor to the band's later, fuller sound, as Gane and Sadier are already heading in the more ambitious direction that would subsequently inform their peak output and establish them as one of the most influential, unique acts in the realm of alternative rock.
Thus Transient Random-Noise With Announcements is a huge step forward for an already highly promising rock outfit. The album depicts a continually developing group that already appears to understand their strengths and limitations, shaping the music to best match their idiosyncratic style. The group hadn't yet reached their peak, and accordingly there are occasional misfires arising from the band's natural 'growing pains,' but for the most part Stereolab adroitly implement their artistic vision as they continue to progress and mature at an incredible rate.
One of the key differences between Mars Audiac Quintet and the group's previous albums is apparent from the start; while Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements featured dramatically improved production when compared with its predecessors, it isn't until Mars Audiac Quintet that the group's output featured the crystal clear production that would proceed to typify their studio fare. Transient Random Noise Bursts With Announcements was informed with a certain rawness (which certainly worked in that context) that's been wholly dispelled by the time Stereolab reached their third full length CD, and this ameliorated production imbues the album with a level of polish that that results in a vastly different listening experience from the material that preceded it.
Another disparity that's paramount to differentiating Mars Audiac Quintet from what came before is its nearly uniform style. When compared with its genre hopping predecessor it becomes obvious that Mars Audiac Quintet boasts only a modicum of diversity, with a certain distinctive sound permeating most of the tracks. It could be asserted that on their prior fare Stereolab were searching for their sonic niche, experimenting with disparate styles in an effort to discover their ideal musical modality, and having found their voice were simply focusing on their new trademark style; it could also be asserted, however, that the diversity featured on their prior album was one the CD's greatest assets, and the loss of this musical versatility leaves Mars Audiac Quintet susceptible to repetition and stagnation.
Fortunately the caliber of the album is sufficiently strong that it's never truly in danger of falling prey to these musical maladies. On Mars Audiac Quintet the band's genre of choice is experimental pop, filled with myriad inventive hooks and creative melodies. The album still largely consists of Sadier's brilliant vocal melodies superimposed over hypnotic drones, but this equation merely constitutes the foundation of the tracks; there's far more to these songs than that superficial account suggests, from stunning instrumental interplay to the gorgeous interweaving vocals of Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen's vocals to the clever vocal and musical hooks to the rampant instrumental experimentation that brings in everything from organs to synthesizers to the occasional moog.
The songwriting is superb throughout, with highlights such as the hyper catchy pop of Wow And Flutter and Ping Pong, two tracks studded with an array of irresistible, unforgettable hooks, the mark of pop music of the highest order, accessible, catchy and profoundly creative.
Not every track excels; the closer, Fiery Yellow, ends the album on a tepid note, a minimalistic track that lacks the moodiness or atmospherics to make a song of that nature work. It's far from offensive; rather, it's just a letdown after over an hour's worth of nonstop memorable hooks and classic melodies.
Ultimately Mars Audiac Quintet is an eminently worthy follow up to the excellent Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements. While it conspicuously lacks the latter's diversity it compensates for that deficiency with a more consistent selection of tracks. When it comes to the vastly different production, each album's studio treatment perfectly complements the material on its respective CD, ably suiting the unique content contained therein. Thus both albums are on a very similar level, just as both are indispensable to any alternative rock collection.
Refried Ectoplasm, the second installment in the single/B-side compiling Switched On series, is considerably better than its predecessor. This is only natural; whereas the first volume consisted of the band's humble beginnings, the tracks on volume two are culled from recording sessions conducted at around the same time as the release of more accomplished albums like Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, and thus depicts the group in far better form. Stereolab had already made great strides toward establishing a unique musical identity for themselves, leading to material far superior to the content derived from their uncertain yet precocious, promising origins when they were a timid rock act with a flair for aping prominent Krautrock groups.
Thus Refried Ectoplasm offers material in a similar vein to Stereolab's contemporaneous output, leading to content with transparent similarities to the work featured on their proper albums of that period. Given the caliber of Stereolab's recent LP efforts this is certainly for the best, resulting in tracks like the infectious French Disko (the closest the band had come to a hit single at that point) and the incredibly catchy John Cage Bubblegum.
Both of those tracks demonstrate how far the band had come since their inception just a few years before, the kind of fluid, compelling blends of pop and Krautrock inspired experimentation that the group seemed to be able to effortlessly generate at this stage of their career.
Unfortunately, the album's ascension to greatness is curtailed by "Animal Or Vegetable (A Wonderful Wooden Reason…)," a track that represents the nadir of the band's canon to this point. The song is an extremely experimental, woefully dissonant effort that, in a maneuver far more sadistic than anything alluded to in the subsequent track Sadistic, lasts for over ten minutes, bereft of any involving melodies or engaging atmospherics. By the end of the number the group don't appear to even pretend that the track is a song as it degenerates into headache inducing entropy. I'm assuming that the portion of the title enclosed in parentheses is an allusion to a line from Meadow Meal, and while that song was afflicted with similar defects at least Faust had the decency to make their track moody and cohesive on a thematic level. "Animal Or Vegetable" simply sounds like a melting pot for all of the worst excesses inherent to Krautrock, and it's fortunate that John Cage Bubblegum is positioned immediately afterwards to reaffirm one's faith in the band's abilities.
With the exception of this cacophonous behemoth and arguably the closer, Stereolab never do anything else to try one's patience, allowing the listener to dismiss the "Animal Or Vegetable" as the band's Revolution 9 or Sister Ray or any other disastrous experimental anthem of that sort, an anomaly that isn't indicative of any greater failings in the band.
And this is indeed the correct attitude, as nearly every other track has something worthwhile to offer, devoid of any more unwelcome surprises. While French Disko and John Cage Bubblegum stand out, there are a plethora of other impressive tracks, be they catchy pop gems, driving rockers or simply unpretentiously beautiful soundscapes. Nearly every track is a worthy candidate for being placed on a proper album, as the band even invested considerable time and effort in the B-sides as well. Sadier and Gane are in top form as composers, and every note betrays the great chemistry the band have together, as all members gel to fully realize the songwriting duo's visions.
There's also a rendition of Tone Burst with country overtones, and while this seems wrong on a very deep, unspeakable level it's at least interesting as a novelty, though it hardly has the staying power of the other tracks.
Ultimately Refried Ectoplasm is a great album with one very severe weak spot that prevents the CD from reaching its full potential. Any Stereolab fan should be grateful that the record company has been releasing these single/B-side compilations, as these are truly songs that none of the group's followers would ever want to miss. It may not quite have the historical importance of volume 1, but it compensates for this with inspired songwriting and unparalleled musicianship.
On Mars Audiac Quintet, Stereolab had made great strides toward establishing a unique identity for themselves; in the process, however, they concentrated most of their focus on a few key areas in which they excelled, thus becoming somewhat limited when it came to range and variety. Thus as this specialization came at the expense of the band's diversity, it eliminated any need for versatility, lending the tracks a somewhat uniform feel.
The album was sufficiently good that it was hardly crippled by its dearth of diversity, and the band's perpetual adherence to their limited blueprints at least ensured a consistent, high quality listen. But with only a modicum of musical range the album was nevertheless impeded, preventing it from reaching its full potential and achieving true greatness. Mars Audiac Quintet was never truly monotonous, as there was always a plethora of captivating melodies and memorable hooks to sustain the listener's interest, but its lack of diversity was a pronounced liability nonetheless.
Fortunately this shortcoming was addressed in the album's follow up, the brilliant Emperor Tomato Ketchup, a CD that combines the quality and consistency of Mars Audiac Quintet with the band's most diverse and eclectic track selection to this point in their careers.
Emperor Tomato Ketchup assimilates myriad disparate influences from all corners of the contemporary music scene, from bubblegum pop to Krautrock to avant garde noisemaking to trip hop to ambient to lounge music to rock and roll to progressive rock to pop rock to new wave to electronica and beyond, all while retaining the band's distinctive identity. Stereolab implement every unique style with precision and fidelity, preserving both the integrity of the source material and the originality that characterizes their work.
Furthermore, Gane and Sadier have hit a new peak with their songwriting, effortlessly generating an array of catchy melodies and irresistible hooks all within the context of hyper complex, experimental music. This is a truly impressive feat, as the escalation of the band's complexity coincides exactly with their progression in the songwriting department, ensuring that their efforts as composers are never marred or hindered by the sheer convolution of the music.
This marriage of instantly gratifying songwriting and overarching complexity is apparent right from the beginning of the album. The opener, Metronomic Underground, is a major highlight; while at heart it's an infectious, hypnotic groove it's also simply fascinating on a sonic level, with hyper intricate instrumentation that features everything from bubbly synths to moody basswork coupled with ethereal vocals that, while they consist of the same mantra-like chanting over and over again still manage to sound beautiful and haunting. The product is a mesmerizing soundscape that remains gripping throughout its entire lengthy runtime, and a good indication of what's to come on the remainder of the album.
The album, as stated before, is highly consistent, featuring standout tracks like the dreamy pop song Cybele's Reverie, the incredibly catchy Percolator and the relentless pop rock of The Noise Of Carpet which, on a structural level, resembles a conventional rock song far more than any other track on the album.
While not every number matches the caliber of the top tier material included herein, there's nothing I'd dismiss as filler, as each song has at least something worthwhile to offer. The album remains compelling throughout, a combination of the quality of the tracks and the diversity of the content.
Thus Emperor Tomato Ketchup is a true classic up there with the best offerings from the alternative rock scene. Stereolab had progressed far beyond their initial phase as a Faust tribute band, their days as a raw, minimalistic alternative rock outfit and their period as a simple experimental pop group, reaching a level that combines all of these tendencies into one artistic vision with none of the band's old limitations. The band makes brilliant use of this artistic freedom, and the product is their best album to this date.
By 1997 Stereolab had made a profound impact upon the alternative rock scene, and their last several opuses had charted in the UK. Thus, in the wake of their most critically acclaimed album (Emperor Tomato Ketchup), the band was left with the dilemma that invariably haunts all rock groups who attain success early in their career, namely how to capitalize upon their good fortune.
Many groups, in similar positions, have elected to take the conservative approach, releasing rehashes of their most lucrative works in the hope that they'll achieve comparable success. Others have taken the artistic freedom that success has afforded them and taken huge risks, producing extremely ambitious content that may very well endanger their newfound prosperity.
Stereolab, a group whose very existence is predicated on taking such risks, obviously opted for the latter approach, releasing their most artistically adventurous, ambitious album to date.
Dots And Loops is an album of transcendent aural splendor, with both the vocals and instrumentation simply radiating beauty, and ultimately this is the very purpose of the CD. While Dots And Loops contains myriad strong melodies throughout, the album is never about offering catchy pop hooks or exciting musical passages; rather, it's a deeply serious, self-consciously beautiful work in which its rich sonic textures and angelic vocal tones nearly always take precedence over traditional hummable tunes or infectious grooves.
While the group had always harbored tendencies in this direction, up until now the sonic beauty, while hardly an afterthought, was merely one of the many aims of the group, with crafting strong melodies an equally important endeavor. Now the melodies seem to be geared toward helping to facilitate this beauty, keeping one's attention arrested so that they can better appreciate the gorgeous musical tapestry that Stereolab are weaving.
Another fashion in which Dots And Loops is built around showcasing Stereolab's signature beauty pertains to the energy of the tracks. By and large the album is very subdued throughout, thus better enabling the listener to relax and fall under the spell of the layers of exquisite majesty. The music is often soothing, never metamorphosing into an accelerated pop rock onslaught like The Noise Of Carpet that would endanger the aural purity of the sound.
Fortunately this beauty is accompanied by Gane and Sadier's usual brilliant songwriting. The single Miss Modular is about the closest to pop that Dots And Loops ever gets, while The Flower Called Nowhere contains some of the album's most elegant, bewitching vocal melodies which simply release beauty from every note.
The album's most ambitious track is the twenty minute plus Refractions In The Plastic Pulse that, in the grand tradition of the best multi-part epics, boasts myriad stellar melodies, never allowing a single one to outstay its welcome. The song is even better than its Transient Random-Noise With Announcements counterpart Jenny Ondoline, with superior music and instrumentation when compared to that relatively early attempt at an anthemic suite.
While not quite as accessible or instantly gratifying as Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Dots And Loops is a masterpiece in its own right, an album of overpowering beauty that never feels bombastic or overblown. The beauty feels organic throughout, never the least bit forced or artificial, while these uniformly pretty aural dynamics are never used as an excuse for neglecting the melodies or skimping on hooks. Even if they're not emphasized these melodies and hooks are still significant components of the album's sound, as otherwise the beauty would simply fall flat without a strong musical foundation to base it on.
Thus Dots And Loops is a great follow up to the magnificent Emperor Tomato Ketchup, as well as an artistic gambit that paid off in spades. Most self-consciously beautiful albums are marred by overly generic notions of what sonic beauty is and pervasive self-indulgence; on Dots And Loops Stereolab truly capture a rare kind of beauty seldom encountered in the world of rock, and build their album around this exquisite core.
Ever since the series' first appearance the year of the band's full length studio debut, the Switched On volumes have been offering Stereolab fans music that they'll genuinely want to hear as opposed to simply presenting the listeners with content that they'll feel an obsessive need to own for completion's sake. Aluminum Tunes, the third installment in the series, continues this fine tradition of delivering rare, long coveted obscure gems to an eager fanbase, taking the concept even further by offering two full discs worth of high quality, difficult to find material.
This may sound excessive, and to a certain extent I'd concur with that assertion; due to its bloated length, Aluminum Tunes is far more erratic than its predecessors, with a fair share of filler to pad the two hour plus length. On the other hand, bombarding the listener with as much rare Stereolab music as possible is the very philosophy that bred the Swicthed On series and its ilk, and in a sense it's precisely what any hardcore Stereolab fan would want, often favoring quantity over quality provided that there's an ample supply of both which, fortunately, there certainly is on this occasion.
Right from the first few notes Aluminum Tunes attains must-have status for diehard Stereolab fans by including the rare, highly acclaimed early EP Amorphous Body Study Centre in its entirety. The EP is quite a worthy offering, resembling the group's early work like Peng! in its relative minimalism and simplicity. While it lacks the sonic richness and aural depth that the band imbued into their later projects, the tracks tend to compensate for these shortcomings with the strength of their hooks and melodies, and given the caliber of Peng! there's no shame in any parallels between the EP and the group's highly auspicious full length debut.
While the EP is a mere six songs, it packs a lot of content into its diminutive length. The opener, Pop Quiz, is unorthodox pop in the vein of some of the band's early singles included on the original Switched On, while Space Moment is an ambitious attempt at some primitive yet compelling soundscapes.
There's far more to Aluminum Tunes than a single EP, however; the first disc contains notable highlights like the rocker Iron Man (with no relation to Black Sabbath's seminal heavy metal masterpiece), the moving One Small Step and the fast, poppy Speedy Car. Disc one is the more consistent of the two, offering an array of forgotten or misplaced classics just as the previous Switched On volumes had offered devoted Stereolab listeners.
Disc two, however, is somewhat suspect. There are occasions when the band seems to invest more effort in creating noise than creating music, a self-indulgent failing that peaks on Percolations; there are also, however, tracks that compensate for such misfires like the melodic Check And Double Check.
There are still more liabilities that manifest themselves throughout the disc with little to address this qualitative imbalance. While musical diversity is generally a positive thing, it only works when a group both does justice to the genre they mimic while maintaining their own identity throughout. Thus in cases where the style assumed is antithetical to the band's nature and little is done to adapt it to their own strengths the product is a monumental debacle. Such is the case with the opener, the lackluster One Note Samba/Surfboard, a track that betrays the band's identity with little to offer to allay the damage.
Another misfire is a version of one of my favorite Stereolab songs, Metronomic Underground; the alternate interpretation of the track on Aluminum Tunes is vastly inferior to the original, rendering it wholly extraneous with little of note to offer the listener beyond the butchery of a bona fide classic.
Despite the album's bipolar nature, the good on Aluminum Tunes easily outweighs the bad, presenting the listener with a plethora of high quality songs that nearly slipped through the cracks. The lesser material is at least interesting, thus somewhat justifying its presence; it still somewhat mars the album, as simply 'interesting' tracks aren't conducive to the repeat listens that the better tracks encourage, but they're hardly an insurmountable obstacle toward enjoyment, and the better material always shines through.
Thus, once again, the Switched On series has yielded another highly entertaining package that will doubtless appeal to fanboys and casual listeners alike. While undeniably flawed Aluminum Tunes is still a strong package, and it would have been a true pity if some of the better tracks contained herein never saw the light of day.
Recorded in 1993, The Groop Played "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music" was promptly shelved and, in all honesty, should have remained in that condition. While most EPs are insubstantial, tGPSABPM is virtually devoid of any musical ideas or performances that could be deemed the least bit meaningful. At times the EP is so bereft of substance that's it borders on nonexistence, at least as far as musical depth is concerned.
Nevertheless, in a seemingly arbitrary maneuver the EP was discreetly released in 1998. Perhaps this decision can be attributed to the fact that the only new Stereolab product to be issued in 1998 was just an installment in the Switched On series as opposed to a full fledged new album, or maybe they felt that Stereolab was sufficiently popular that in the current musical climate any release with the group's (or rather groop's) name attached could prove at least somewhat lucrative. Either way the EP, warts and all, achieved mainstream release in 1998, and became the first major indication that the band was far from infallible.
One would assume that the band recognized the inadequacies of tGPSABPM and shelved it in response to its underwhelming nature, but even if this was the case they made no effort to address the EP's defects, simply releasing it as it was when it was first recorded in 1993.
After a parade of good to great albums an EP of the low caliber of tGPSABPM comes as a sudden, jarring shock. Divided into two sides, one termed 'Easy Listening' and the other 'New Wave,' these names seem like little more than one of the band's customary lighthearted pranks, as there are virtually no correlations between the content on the sides and these overarching designations.
Side one is far from impressive; Avant Garde M.O.R., The Groop Play Chord X and Ronco Symphony are criminally bland, instantly forgettable fare bereft of the band's usual charm and creativity.
Worse still are side one's other two offerings. Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (Mellow) is a headache inducing, abrasive aural onslaught with nothing that could be construed as a hook or melody, or even as music, throughout.
While it isn't painful to sit through the way Mellow was, Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (Foamy) simply consists of bubbly sound effects devoid of any pattern or meaning, with nothing that could be termed music popping up for the duration of the track.
Thus the entirety of side one is nearly useless. Some of the tracks I dismissed as horrifically bland can at least constitute vaguely pleasant background music, but there are no compelling or memorable musical ideas featured on any of the five tracks that compose side one.
Side two doesn't fare much better. We're Not Adult Orientated is colossally repetitive; while the same can be said for many of Stereolab's best tracks, in this case there's simply nothing going on in the song during its repetition, with no hypnotic grooves or entrancing musical patterns.
U.H.F.-MFP is similarly repetitive, but at least it has a moody atmosphere and some halfway decent musical ideas. Its melody is hardly staggering, but it's still superior to most of what had come before, making it a viable candidate for best track on the entire EP.
Finally the live version of We're Not Adult Orientated at least has more drive and energy than the original rendition, but it still falls prey to precisely the same flaws, preventing it from offering any meaningful improvements over its tepid studio counterpart.
Ultimately tGPSABPM is simply a rather pedestrian affair, lacking the creativity, intelligence and tastefulness that typifies the bulk of Stereolab's output. The songs are uniformly uninspired, far beneath the level of quality that their other work seemingly effortlessly reaches. The ballads aren't pretty enough, the rockers don't rock enough and there are few catchy melodies to be found. Thus the EP is easily the nadir of Stereolab's career to this point, and the band should have saved themselves the embarrassment of the CD by allowing it to continue collecting dust on their studio's shelves.
After having perpetrated the unthinkable and gone an entire year without releasing a new studio album, Stereolab returned with their final product of the twentieth century, Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night, a CD that polarizes fans of the group to a greater extent than virtually any other entry in their entire discography.
One of the first things that one's apt to notice about the album is its relative lack of polish when contrasted against the slick studio sheen of CDs like Dots And Loops. While not quite a return to the edgy rawness of Transient Random-Sound Bursts With Announcements, the album is noticeably rougher than much of what came before it, with no discernable attempts to smooth over the edges or impose contemporary nineties production over it.
This is neither inherently good nor bad, as for any given album there'll invariably be a certain brand of production that suits it; in this case the relative rawness works well enough, as a glossier treatment would likely clash with the innate nature of this particular product.
The rawness certainly complements parts of the album's minimalistic nature, though the minimalism itself isn't necessarily an asset. Masters of minimalism, like Mark Knopfler and JJ Cale, employ this spare style to cultivate haunting, evocative atmospherics, while in the past Stereolab themselves utilized minimalism to good effect by using it to establish hypnotic grooves that if anything benefited from their repetitive character.
On Cobra And Phases, however, minimalism often functions as a means of masking an overall lack of substance, creating redundant loops as opposed to mesmerizing sonic patterns. The worst culprit in this regard is the egregiously overlong Blue Milk; while, much like any good epic, the song contains multiple sections, each portion is sufficiently bereft of creative ideas that they'll all invariably blur into one mass of sound that's little more than a fundamentally static sonic tableau with no sign of tangible progression on the horizon.
Only a modicum of tracks on the album hinge upon minimalism, however, and the band often veers too far in the other direction. The band's unfortunate notion of what constitutes a creative arrangement seems to revolve around filling ever last empty space with sound effects; not only does this distract the listener from the music, but it likewise inspires the band to focus less on creating coherent, compelling melodies, feeling that this sonic depth alone is sufficient even when unaccompanied by engaging music.
Another severe defect emerges on a stylistic level; much of the album bears a strong resemblance to easy listening music (or at least the Stereolab equivalent of it), and while this has long been the case the band would usually insert some creative musical ideas to keep these tracks engrossing. On Cobra And Phases, however, this is often not the case, and songs like The Spiracles suffer accordingly.
Given that it's a Stereolab album, however, there's much to redeem these failings, as Gane, Sadier and company are far too talented for one of their major releases to be devoid of merit. Tracks like The Free Design are quite catchy and well executed, while Infinity Girl almost betrays the band's identity by sounding like a conventional pop song but is sufficiently catchy that this moment out of character can easily be overlooked in favor of simply enjoying its array of irresistible hooks.
While Cobra And Phases is certainly a lesser effort for the band, Stereolab should be commended for trying something that deviates from their usual comfort zone. Passages of the album feature jazzy overtones, the band delves deeper than ever into the realm of electronica and the layers upon layers of sound effects are, if nothing else, quite ambitious and sonically intriguing.
Nevertheless the progression of the album is impeded by its aforementioned vices, namely sound effects in place of hooks or musical ideas, sections that bear an unhealthy resemblance to derivative, generic easy listening music and the erroneous, misguided notion that all musical repetition is synonymous with entrancing minimalism.
The songwriting is sufficiently strong that Cobra And Phases is at least a pretty good album, but it's also the weakest new full length CD that the band had ever produced to this point, lacking the charm, innovation and range of their best efforts. It's still well worth a listen for any Stereolab fan, but newcomers to the band would be better off using albums like Emperor Tomato Ketchup or Mars Audiac Quintet as their introductions to the fascinating world of Stereolab.
For reasons known only to the 'groop' themselves, The First Of The Microbe Hunters is touted as an EP despite its standard forty minute length. While Stereolab's full length releases tend to run in excess of seventy minutes, thus rendering Microbe Hunters EP length in a comparative sense, it still feels like a full album and, ultimately, should be treated as such.
Microbe Hunters is comprised of a mere seven tracks; six of them were originally envisioned as B-sides, while the remaining song is an outtake from Dots And Loops. This doesn't sound too promising in theory, nor is it in practice; Stereolab take far too much pride in their work to hastily toss off half-baked B-sides, but by virtue of their B-side status these songs are still inferior to most singles or album tracks, while the outtake was obviously withheld from Dots And Loops for the most transparent and predictable of reasons.
As all too often seems to be the case, the weakest Microbe Hunters tracks are also the longest. On Outer Bongolia the group establish a tight rhythm, and while infectious grooves of this nature can certainly safely be prolonged there will invariably be a line of demarcation that determines when the track becomes gratuitously overlong and thus painfully monotonous. Outer Bongolia goes far beyond this line, as the group clearly need to learn the art of moderation, and thus an otherwise entertaining track is transfigured into a needlessly protracted bore.
Elsewhere the Dots And Loops outtake, I Feel The Air (Of Another Planet), is comparably overlong, shifting between sections yet never conjuring a memorable hook or catchy melody. None of its disparate sections are particularly compelling, and thus despite its massive length there's little reward for enduring the track in its entirety. It's fortunate that I Feel The Air was kept off Dots And Loops, as it would have marred one of Stereolab's finest hours.
Finally the closer, Retrograde Mirror Form, also contained multiple sections, with similarly pedestrian results. One part in particular constitutes a cacophonous, headache inducing mass of chaotically merging, colliding and overlapping instruments and voices, hardly conducive toward a satisfying listen.
Fortunately some of the shorter tracks are far superior to these overblown behemoths; the trio of Intervals, Barock-Plastik and Household Names are particularly strong, featuring catchy melodies and plentiful hooks.
As always one of the group's chief assets is Laetitia Sadier's voice, which has, time and again, demonstrated its capacity to turn a dismal affair into an ethereal classic; This makes one wonder if Outer Bongolia would have been more considerably more palatable had Sadier assumed vocal responsibilities on it as opposed to leaving it as an instrumental.
There's more to the aforementioned triumvirate than Sadier's angelic vocals, however, as they're each graced with stellar instrumentation from the band. Gane and Sadier's songwriting, while not in top form, is still quite impressive, making these tracks worthy of being admitted into the band's illustrious canon.
As far as the remaining track, Nomus Et Phusis, is concerned, it doesn't really leave much of an impression, either positive or negative; some of its instrumental sections come off as generic electronica, but it's still far from a bad outing, merely terminally unspectacular.
Thus, in the long run, First Of The Microbe Hunters is a somewhat mediocre affair. While it contains three perfectly decent tracks, they're ultimately negated by three, considerably longer and considerably worse, songs, while the remaining number doesn't constitute a terribly compelling tiebreaker.
By all rights Outer Bongolia should be a good track, and would have been had Stereolab had the good sense to excise a few of its excess minutes. I Feel The Air (Of Another Planet), however, would require far more than judicial editing to redeem it; it's actually rather pretty, but this beauty is meaningless without the foundation of a well written melody, a quintessential B-side. Meanwhile Retrograde Mirror Form also has some wasted potential that, sadly enough, will never be fulfilled.
These factors conspire to make a highly underwhelming musical experience. Perhaps rather than being an instance of wholly arbitrary nomenclature the band refers to First Of The Microbe Hunters as an EP so that no one can call it the worst Stereolab album. As an EP it's a good deal more compelling than the putrid The Groop Played "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music," just as it's a good deal worse than any full fledged Stereolab album.
After wallowing in relative mediocrity for a spell, Stereolab reemerged with a triumphant return to form. The album is a throwback to the self-conscious, transcendent beauty of Dots And Loops, but it's far from a rehash; Sound-Dust is very much its own album, and a unique installment in the band's discography.
Sound-Dust has a certain innate dreamy innocence, an emotionally penetrating charm that will resonate with almost any listener. Its childlike nature imbues it with a transparent delicacy that gives each track a haunting yet beautiful fragility, as if any song could collapse at the slightest touch.
Many of the tracks contain multiple, vastly different sections; some have asserted that these portions aren't necessarily terribly compatible, with parts sounding incongruous and out of place as if they'd just been hastily, haphazardly grafted together with no rhyme nor reason.
There is some truth to this; oftentimes the latter half of a song will feel nothing like a natural extension of what came before. This liability, fortunately enough, is compensated for by the strength of these songs; even if they're bereft of logical segues the sheer quality of the tracks redeems any structural inconsistencies. Whether or not these numbers would be better off as separate standalone songs becomes irrelevant thanks to the boundless entertainment these tracks offer, and the halves are never in danger of diluting or detracting from one another as a repercussion of their status as single yet dual natured songs.
The album places an unusually heavy emphasis on electronica, with the first track, Black Ants In Sound-Dust even functioning as an electronic instrumental to introduce this side of the band. While an over reliance on electronica would dispel much of the charm of the band, these elements are handled in an adroit fashion that recognizes the need for subtlety and moderation in this department. The trappings of electronica never compromise the songs's melodies or tones, always helping to facilitate the poppier nature of the songs as opposed to obstructing it.
The caliber of the songs is very high indeed, with a plethora of tracks that effortlessly achieve classic status. Space Moth is simply beautiful beyond words, Captain Easychord starts off as a catchy song with vague country overtones before metamorphosing into a moody electronica driven anthem, while the subtle menace of the hyper complex Suggestion Diabolique is eloquently conveyed by the twists and turns of its convoluted melody and ominous lyrics.
Despite its consistency the album contains a few misfires (albeit relative ones, as each track has at least something worthwhile to offer); thus Nothing To Do With Me is a duet between Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen that reinforces why the latter should never go beyond backing vocals. While her singing has always complemented the French diva in the past, it doesn't hold up to critical scrutiny once she leaves her background comfort zone.
Another minor flaw is that the first half of the album is, by and large, a good deal superior to the latter half; tracks like the aforementioned Space Moth, Captain Easychord, the lovely Baby Lulu with some of Sadier's best vocals to date and the compelling multipart The Black Arts somewhat overshadow the subsequent tracks. This isn't always the case, but it's a sufficiently prevalent problem that it bears mentioning.
Still, the remaining tracks are a far cry from bad, rendering side two a mild anticlimax at worst. Gane and Sadier's songwriting is impeccable throughout, as they craft an array of gorgeous, highly expressive songs that are simply enchanting with their dreamlike soundscapes.
Thus Sound-Dust is a truly great album, Stereolab's first in quite some time. Boasting beautiful vocals and arrangements, a novel marriage of electronica, balladry and retro sounding sixties' pop and brilliant songwriting from the band's founders, the CD is a must have for any fan of the group, and one of the most beautiful albums that one will encounter in the early years of the new millennium.
In the intervening years between Sound-Dust and Instant 0 In The Universe tragedy struck and Mary Hansen perished in a freak bicycle accident. While it may seem coarse or heartless to do so, I'll only refer to her demise as it relates to the sound of the album rather than delivering a more sensitive eulogy or singing her praises as a human being.
Hansen's death, needless to say, had a profound impact on the traditional Stereolab sound. Her backup vocals were a crucial part of nearly every song the band ever performed (after her admission into the group, that is), and the vocal interplay between her and Laetitia Sadier was one of the primary staples of the band's sound. While Sadier's lead vocals are frequently hailed as the group's greatest asset, a large part of the beauty of these vocal passages can be attributed to the lovely, fluid way in which Hansen's vocals complement her singing. The band attempt to recapture this pivotal dynamic via overdubs, having Sadier perform both lead and backup vocals, but while a commendable effort these stopgap measures can't hope to duplicate the ethereal vocal interplay of old; in this regard, at least, Mary Hansen was truly irreplaceable.
The lack of Hansen's guitarwork is less of a crisis; it had been a long time since the band's instrumental focus was on guitars, and during the few instances where they resurface it's usually Gane himself who distinguishes himself on the axe. This isn't to diminish Hansen's importance, but it's clear in what capacity she'll be most sorely missed.
Despite their loss Stereolab persevered; Sound-Dust was already a step in the right direction, setting them on the road to restoring their old glory, and Instant 0 In The Universe adroitly continues this positive momentum.
In truth Instant 0 In The Universe would likely have scored higher were it not for its EP status; as it stands, it's a mere five songs long, and unlike The First Of The Microbe Hunters its length corresponds to the standard definition of the term EP. Thus its brevity is its greatest liability, albeit far from an insurmountable one; as an EP it truly excels, with five brilliant tracks each drenched in the band's usual charm.
The EP is far from perfect; the band continue their irksome tendency to make each track sound like two or more disparate songs were crudely compacted into a single distorted musical vision. Once again, however, the caliber of the tracks makes this deficiency easy to overlook; the musical fragments may not always gel together with any degree of precision, but they're still incredibly well written and brilliantly performed, and the ensuing enjoyment fully exonerates the band from their structural misdeeds.
There are, needless to say, some other flaws as well. While the band's lyrics tend to be easy to tune out (especially given that they're seldom audible, and when they are discernable they tend to be in French), there are a few instances of painfully pedestrian lyrics, hence cringe inducing passages like, "good is me therefore I am good. You're not me therefore you are bad." Ironically enough, while it's the vocals that truly make Stereolab the lyrics themselves have never been the band's forte, and I frankly prefer transparent, quixotic, and political polemics over amateurish attempts at remedial philosophy.
Given the lack of emphasis on what's actually being sung, however, these lyrical inanities never pose much of a problem, and thus while the EP may not be immaculate its flaws tend to be trivial concerns such as these.
The songs themselves are extremely strong, and seem to hearken back to the energetic grooves of old (circa Emperor Tomato Ketchup) rather than the jazzy undertones of Cobra And Phases or the pristine, dreamlike beauty of Sound-Dust. While those albums were certainly quite good as well, this is a welcome, long overdue throwback to the band's past, thus constituting a very dynamic, exciting listen, particularly for longtime fans who wax nostalgic for the Krautrock influenced days of yore.
The songs are immensely consistent from a qualitative perspective, each a well crafted and fully realized musical vision. With highlights like the bouncy Jaunty Monty And The Bubbles Of Silence and the beautiful "…Sudden Stars" the EP is a highly impressive package, making one long for a full length release of this caliber.
Thus in the wake of Mary Hansen's death the group came together to pay homage to one of their own and, in the process, created a stellar offering with five topnotch tracks worth of the band's signature style of art rock. Instant 0 In The Universe is easily the group's greatest EP and, unlike most of its ilk, isn't just a ruse to extort wealth from hardcore fans in exchange for a few tossed off songs that will soon be forgotten. It's clear throughout that the band invested a lot of time and effort into this venture, and the result is a product that's essential for all Stereolab fans. The group may have sustained a grievous loss but they carried on nevertheless, which is the best outcome that one could hope for given the bleak circumstances.
While quite an accomplished EP, Instant 0 In The universe, thanks to its diminutive size, leaves the listener wanting more. Some would, however, be justifiably skeptical of this desire; the EP was remarkably consistent, leaving one to wonder whether or not the band was capable of sustaining this high level quality for the duration of a full length album.
Fortunately Margerine Eclipse dispels these worries, a full fledged new studio album wherein nearly every song is of the same caliber as the brilliant tracks culled from the EP. The songwriting is simply superb, as is the instrumentation, and thus the product is Stereolab's best album since Dots And Loops.
Admittedly the album doesn't break any new ground, and Stereolab had long since eschewed their sonic pioneer status. By and large the inspiration for any given melody can be traced back to the band's earlier work, with some wholly transparent instances of borderline self-plagiarism. This is particularly noticeable on numbers like Hillbilly Motobike, a track that's quintessential generic Stereolab and sounds as if the band is simply going through the motions. These throwbacks are seldom that overt, however, and at worst they tend to come across as harmless nostalgic nods to their own past. No melodies are outright stolen from their own oeuvre, with the intentional exception of a new version of "…Sudden Stars," which is just as gorgeous as it had been on Instant 0 In The Universe.
As far as the quality of Margerine Eclipse is concerned, highlights abound throughout the album; Vonal Declosion opens the CD on an auspicious note, while Cosmic Country Noir and The Man With 100 Cells are a pair of highly melodic, hyper catchy instant classics. Dear Marge recycles part of Mass Riff to good effect, while Margerine Rock offers ample proof that the band can still rock whenever the inclination strikes them.
The album isn't flawless; in addition to the painfully familiar Hillbilly Motobike, Feel And Triple, while a moving tribute to the late Mary Hansen, fails to amount to much on a musical level, diluting not only the track's memorability but even the emotional impact of the song itself.
The majority of the album, however, is comprised of stellar tracks with catchy melodies and bountiful hooks. The tracks, by and large, tend to be multipart, and while the pieces don't always neatly cohere into a polished whole that's one vice that a listener must be willing to forgive if they're the least bit interested in exploring the band's exceptional canon.
The album, much like all other Stereolab releases, contains myriad unspeakably beautiful moments, not to mention some extremely catchy grooves along with the occasional foray into the realm of electronica (an element that, by this stage of their careers, the group can masterfully harness to complement their pop melodies rather than obstructing them). Few groups can effortlessly conjure such transcendently beautiful soundscapes the way that Stereolab can, and it's this ability that's allows their work to remain fresh and exciting even after years of similar pursuits on their part.
Thus Margerine Eclipse is another art rock masterpiece, doing little new yet doing it so well that it scarcely matters. After having heeded the teachings of krautrock and other such exotic influences for years on end, Stereolab have truly fashioned their own unique voice, and it's indeed a rich and beautiful one at that, much like the voice of Laetitia Sadier herself.
Stereolab took a rather unorthodox approach when crafting the follow up to the brilliant Margerine Eclipse; rather than taking the conventional course and simply releasing another album once they'd amassed enough content to fill a CD, the band opted to produce four new EPs (two in both 2005 and 2006) and subsequently compile all of the material therein, in the process creating a full LP.
Stereolab do their best to convey the impression that Fab Four Suture is a cohesive whole, even going so far as to bookmark the album with two variations of Kyberneticka Babicka (a decidedly lesser effort with only a modicum of musical ideas and obnoxious vocals that never resolve into actual words). Ultimately they prove successful in this endeavor, in large part due to the fact that at any given period Stereolab are sure to have a distinctive style that will invariably permeate all of their output, resulting in a somewhat uniform sound that gives the illusion of thematic and creative cohesiveness. Ergo the material on Fab Four Suture tends to conform to the band's particular style at that time, resulting in a product that never feels the least bit fragmented or disjointed.
The group had always excelled at conjuring stellar singles and EPs (as signified by the high quality of the Switched On series), and thus, for the most part, Fab Four Suture is quite a strong outing for the band. There's certainly a fair share of filler, far more than there had been on Margerine Eclipse or Sound-Dust, but the better material tends to compensate for these inadequacies, at least to as much an extent as is realistically possible.
There are certainly some timeless Stereolab classics on Fab Four Suture. Interlock is a moody, brooding, infectious pop rocker, Visionary Road Maps is highly catchy yet unusually sinister and menacing (which gives an already great track an added edge) and Excursions Into "oh, a-oh" features an unforgettable coda that rocks harder than just about any other entry in the band's discography.
There are some other solid tracks as well, like the enthralling multipart epic Eye Of The Volcano, but nothing else quite reaches the level of those highlights. The filler tends to be inoffensive, often more bland than actually bad (like the rather pedestrian Plastic Mile), and thus Fab Four Suture remains enjoyable for its full duration despite any relative impediments along the way.
Despite its bizarre origins Fab Four Suture makes for quite a compelling listen; the EPs had actually been made with the express intention of subsequently compacting them into one full fledged album, an agenda that's easily recognizable at many points. As stated before, Stereolab do an impressive job of making the four EPs come across as a single musical vision, and its flow is likely ameliorated by the group's overarching, preexisting blueprints in terms of constructing one coherent album.
Thus Fab Four Suture is an eminently successful experiment from the band, employing a unique developmental technique that stands the group in good stead. There are no obvious disadvantages to condensing four EPs into one LP that are evident on the album, though while the new approach works there aren't really any tangible benefits to it either, as Fab Four Suture simply comes across as a standard, solid Stereolab album, no better and no worse. It certainly doesn't rank up there with the group's best work, but it's still a very good outing, and one well worth checking out for any fan of the band, hardcore or casual.
For the duration of their careers, Stereolab's albums have largely been different permutations on a common theme and structure, with only a modicum of deviations from this deeply entrenched status quo. Ergo while the band's latest outing, Chemical Chords, is hardly a radical departure from this seemingly static formula, it's sufficiently different from the tried and true norm that those weary of the group's religious adherence to their modus operandi should stand up and take notice.
The album has been infused with a certain sixties vibe, and while this is hardly new for the band this time the retro influence is more pronounced and transparent than ever before. From psychedelic flourishes to stoners' dazed cheeriness to a flower-power feel that's simultaneously evident yet divorced from its usual political connotations, anachronistic tributes to a bygone era abound, and they're implemented with a certain adroit precision and creativity so that they never feel stale or forced.
More important, however, is the simple nature of much of the music. This isn't alluding to the minimalistic brand of simplicity that characterized much of the band's early work, but rather a disarming directness and charming straightforwardness that largely eschews the sonic complexity that had become a staple of Stereolab.
The appeal of this simplicity is, however, somewhat diluted by a certain over-orchestration that's prevalent on the album, from extraneous string sections to incongruous brass backing. These superfluous arrangements are seldom deftly intertwined with the essence of the music, as the band instead prefer to simply superimpose these orchestrations over the more simple melodies and instrumentation. This doesn't irreparably mar the proceedings, and it isn't as catastrophic a handicap as, for example, the orchestral segues that afflicted The Moody Blues' Days Of Future Passed, but it is a stumbling block that will curtail the listeners' enjoyment of the album to at least some extent.
When one becomes acclimated to these flaws, they'll find another high quality product courtesy of the ever consistent Stereolab. The caliber of the songwriting is strong throughout, and thanks to the band's newfound affinity for simplicity (barring the orchestral obstructions) Chemical Chords is one of the group's most accessible ventures yet.
The opener Neon Beanbag scarcely sounds like Stereolab, a sixties-styled pop number that may be sweet and slight yet is hardly treacle. The music is strong, as is the irresistible vocal hook in the song's refrain (one of the few instances of an English language chorus on the album), making for a perfect introduction to the new elements that animate the album.
Highlights abound on the album, and while there are few instances of cathartic beauty ala Dots And Loops, on a pure entertainment level Chemical Chords excels. It's a decidedly, and intentionally, less ambitious project, but there's no shame in briefly abstaining from high art in favor of some lightweight, axiomatic enjoyment, especially when the final product is as entertaining for the listener as it clearly was for the group producing it.
Thus Chemical Chords is hardly the band's deepest outing, but on a pure fun level it compares favorably to any of the group's prior endeavors. Boasting strong songwriting, impeccable performances and a sound that would be perfect were it not for a few unfortunate impediments, Chemical Chords can be recommended for any fan of the 'groop,' and as an introduction to Stereolab a newbie could do far worse than looking to this album.
Perhaps there was a time when Stereolab could have been referred to as 'Krautrock with humanity,' but if so, such a time has certainly passed. The band have long since transcended their influences, establishing a truly unique musical persona for themselves on the alternative rock circuit. Stereolab have certainly retained the likes of Faust for inspiration, but they no longer overtly emulate them. The band are no more guided by Krautrock influences than by their own wealth of experience on the music scene, thus shedding the self-imposed stylistic limitations of Faust or Kraftwerk hero-worship.
Indeed, Stereolab have fashioned such an idiosyncratic voice for themselves that they remain instantly recognizable no matter what style they adopt. Thus while Chemical Chords, Stereolab's merger of sixties psychedelia and modern complexity, is by no means an album that one would expect from Sadier, Gane and company, it's still an album that no one else could ever have made.
The release of Not Music, however, thrusts Chemical Chords into a vastly different light. Every track on Not Music is culled from the same sessions as its post-millennial-flower-power predecessor, left to gather dust in Stereolab's vaults for several years until the band saw fit to release them.
Logic would dictate that Stereolab would compartmentalize these recordings by quality, first issuing the best tracks while reserving a few choice cuts to attract listeners for a fourth volume of Switched On. This, however, was not the criteria employed by the band, as the divisions don't appear to be predicated upon quality so much as style.
Chemical Chords wasn't a stylistically cohesive album because it featured the best material from the sessions, but rather because Stereolab meticulously selected the tracks that were most suited to the sub-genre that that album happens to occupy. The remaining songs aren't inferior, they're merely stylistically different, and thus what was ill-suited for Chemical Chords is ideal for Not Music.
Which isn't to say that everyone will recognize Not Music as its precursor's equal. Truth be told, Not Music is a far more challenging opus than Chemical Chords. In classic fashion Not Music is filled with beautiful soundscapes and moody minimalism, but these staples of Stereolab's oeuvre are somewhat skewed this time around.
As one would anticipate, Not Music is filled with repetition, but just because the material is repetitive doesn't mean that it's predictable. Often when one hears a track for the first time he will reach a point where he knows what will, or even 'should,' happen next. Not Music thrives on confounding these expectations, providing musical shocks so jarring that one is forced to completely readjust his conception of the entire song.
Even when one imagines that he sees a pattern in a song he'll suddenly be confronted with a twist or surprise, something that may make some uncomfortable. The album is indeed beautiful, but rather than being beautiful in the more conventional sense of Dots And Loops, Not Music is beautiful in a quirky, unorthodox and often off-kilter way that's all its own.
Some may dismiss this as self-indulgent, inaccessible for the sake of being inaccessible. Nearly any track could be modified to make it far more appetizing to the palate of a conventional listener. The truth, however, is that, more often than not, these eccentric flourishes enhance the songs, complementing Sadier and Gane's masterful songwriting. The duo have an unerring ear for aural beauty, often finding it in the most unlikely of places. It's true that sometimes the wrong note will be played for the sake of playing the wrong note, but alternately the band will play something that may initially seem like the wrong note until one realizes that even if it's not the note he expected it is still, deep down, a note that works.
When one acclimates to the unique character of the album he'll find an array of impressive melodies. Every song is strong, with the woeful exception of the closer, a new version of Chemical Chords' Neon Beanbag that accomplishes virtually nothing over the course of its needlessly protracted runtime.
Aside from this misfire the album is highly consistent, and thus the track that stands out the most, Silver Sands, does so due to being the longest cut on the album. At times the (multipart) track features echoes of Man-Machine-era Kraftwerk, but as always Stereolab truly make the song their own.
With no prior knowledge of Not Music's origins, one would doubtlessly think that the album is a defiant reaction to Chemical Chords' atypical accessibility. The truth is that Stereolab have always had an accessible side to them, and thus their lengthy recording sessions reflect this duality by yielding material at both ends of the spectrum.
Upon closer investigation one will find that there's more complexity to Chemical Chords than is initially apparent, while Not Music, despite its intimidating title, is quite accessible on its own terms. While its beauty may not be the beauty of Dots And Loops (a challenging album in its own right) and its catchiness may not be the catchiness of Emperor Tomato Ketchup-era songs like The Noise Of Carpet, this doesn't undermine Not Music's accomplishments in these areas. Once one accepts that Not Music isn't quite as immediately gratifying as its predecessor, he will find a wealth of Stereolab classics, with nothing to hinder his enjoyment of the album save his own preconceptions and prejudices.