A GUEST POSTING BY ALEX G
Presenting a selection from the premier Anglo-Australo-French London-based situationist krautrock exotica group, Stereolab. For this ICA, it was pretty much a straight pick of six or seven favourites I always return to, and then using the remainder to fill any obvious gaps. I felt confident that French Disco and Ping Pong would be popular choices, but that I might be alone in selecting the unrepresentative minimal disco groove of Margerine Melodie or the joyous but essentially throwaway Heavy Denim. It was only after I’d come up with a tracklist that I looked up other people’s “best of” lists online to see if there was anything really obvious I’d missed out and found that none of them remotely agreed with mine… or with each other. Everybody’s got different favourites – they’re just that kind of band.
On the other hand, it should be said that this isn’t really my personal “best of” – that would be far too difficult and probably focus more on the mid-90s albums (for a start, there would definitely be more than one track from Emperor Tomato Ketchup). It’s more of a beginner’s guide for people understandably overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of material Stereolab turned out. One effect of this is that it’s considerably more song-oriented than groove-oriented, though I did make sure to include one long “statement” piece. Of their non-imaginary non-compilation albums, both Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements and Dots and Loops were released as 10-track double-albums in a 3+3+1+3 configuration (several others also had one side taken up with a single track), and that’s what I’ve gone with here. I’ve also thrown in a bonus 7” with two instrumentals.
All songs on the main album are written by the constant core duo, Tim Gane (guitar, keyboards) and Laetitia Sadier (vocals, guitar, keyboards, a bit of everything). There were a lot of line-up changes along the way, but other key long-runners were Mary Hansen (vocals, guitar) and Andy Ramsay (drums). Stereolab do have a reputation for just doing the same thing for 20 years, but I don’t think that’s true, and there’s quite a bit of diversity on display in the ten tracks here. If it weren’t for Sadier’s voice, you wouldn’t necessarily think all these tracks were even by the same band.
French Disco (B side of Jenny Ondioline single, 1993)
Seems to be the Stereolab song that people most latch onto, and as good a place as any to start. Presented here in its original, longer and correctly-spelled B-side form.
Self Portrait With ‘Electric Brain’ (Chemical Chords, 2008)
Chemical Chords was Stereolab’s last “proper” album (a companion out-takes volume, Not Music, emerged two years later) and is the most focused, least noodly of the lot. For some fans this is a bad thing, but personally I like it. The backing track here could be Saint Etienne, though of course Saint Etienne would probably use it to write a song that scans and generally makes sense.
Margerine Melodie (Margerine Eclipse, 2004)
Stereolab go disco! Well, sort of. As you will hear on this track, the Margerine Eclipse album has a gimmick of being mixed so everything is either completely to one side, or dead centre. It works a lot better in practice than you would expect.
Ping Pong (Mars Audiac Quintet, 1994)
Mars Audiac Quintet was a huge leap forward for Stereolab, the first album on which they really integrated their love of lounge, exotica and bubblegum with the familiar krautrock grooves half-inched from NEU! and Can, and this was its most accessible song. Indeed, probably the group’s best-realised attempt on mainstream pop ever.
The Free Design (Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night, 1999)
I’m not sure this would necessarily have made the cut but for a feeling that there ought to be something here to represent the Dots & Loops / Microbe Hunters / Cobra & Phases period. Some may have more tolerance for the noodliness of mid-period Stereolab than I do, but I’ll just stick with this relatively focused and structured track which was pressed into service as the lead single for Cobra & Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night.
Lo Boob Oscillator (single, 1993)
Some facts, thoughts and fancies about Lo Boob Oscillator:
This song has always struck me as needing to be placed at the end of an album side, and annoyingly it never has been. Until now!
The title is supposedly a numbers-to-letters rendering of a noisemaker called the L0 800B Oscillator. But I can’t find any evidence of its existence beyond being used as an explanation for this title. They couldn’t have made up the story, could they?
This is the only full-on French-language track on the compilation, and there probably ought to be more. Cybele’s Reverie (which was the only chanson Français to appear as a general-release single rather than a limited edition like Lo Boob Oscillator) would have been my #11 pick, I think.
Maybe I’m making connections that aren’t there (and nobody else seems to have advanced this hypothesis) but it’s very tempting to see this as an answer record to Sleeping Satellite the huge hit for Tasmin Archer in the autumn of 1992 and a song bemoaning the Apollo programme’s appropriation of mankind’s dream of space travel for short-term political gain. Then one writing and recording cycle later, along come Stereolab with a song reaffirming the moon’s traditional role as “symbolique de quelque visions imaginaire”. Hmmm.
On the original single, “Oscilator” is spelt with one “l”. But it’s always been spelt the correct way since, so presumably that wasn’t deliberate.
Apparently Lo Boob Oscillator appears in the film High Fidelity. I’ve never seen High Fidelity so I didn’t know this. On the soundtrack LP, it’s placed at the start of side four, which is so, so wrong.
Jenny Ondioline (Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, 1993)
Probably the apex of Stereolab’s early shoegazer-friendly “layers of noise” phase. A remixed extract was released as a single, though it got rather overshadowed by its more popular B side, French Disco. Because going on for a very long time (preferably with as few chord changes as possible) is also one of Stereolab’s major traits, here you get the full 18 minute album version.
Nothing To Do With Me (Peel Session version) (ABC Music: The Radio 1 Sessions, 2002)
Side four features three songs which showcase the interplay between Sadier and second vocalist Mary Hansen, starting with probably the funniest song Stereolab ever recorded (though admittedly the competition for that title is not particularly fierce). It’s just Laetitia and Mary quoting lines out of context from Chris Morris‘ Blue Jam but since it was that sort of show anyway, it actually kinda works.
Tomorrow Is Already Here (Emperor Tomato Ketchup, 1996)
Although Sean O’Hagan left Stereolab after Mars Audiac Quintet to concentrate on his own band The High Llamas, he frequently returned as a guest to add his trademark exotica tinges, particularly lashings of vibraphone. This particular track was originally demoed as Reich Song since they reckoned it sounded a bit like the work of minimalist composer Steve Reich.
Heavy Denim (B side of Wow And Flutter single, 1994)
They are here to disrupt, to have the time of their lives. An absolute blast.
AA: Iron Man
I think we’d be talking about a box set before either of these tracks had a hope of making the proper album, but it struck me that if this compilation were issued on vinyl, it’s quite likely that it would include a bonus 7”, and this is the sort of thing I imagine they’d choose to put on it – in fact both tracks made their original appearances on limited 7”s. The A side is a “nu jazz” workout, typical of the Dots And Loops period (and it does have some vinyl crackle I’m afraid, but hey, it’s a free 7”, what do you expect?). The AA side would be great background music for a chart rundown.