Where To Start… Stereolab

Entrance points into a singular catalogue...

Headed by Lætitia Sadier and Tim Gane, Stereolab emerged as one of the most scintillatingly inventive groups of the 90s and beyond. Melding pop sensibilities with a predilection for, variously, Krautrock, Velvets-style drone, library, Bossa nova and wonky jazz, they created a singular mosaic of musical quotations, a “musaic”.

The two met in Paris, when Gane’s group, McCarthy, played there. London was the nexus where they would assemble a loose cast of members, among them Aussie Mary Hansen, who played on all of the group’s best work until her tragic death in 2002, and The High Llamas’s Sean O’Hagan.

There’ve been collaborations with Nurse with Wound, Tortoise and Mouse on Mars. But sometimes it also felt as if they were collaborating with and reworking the past itself, for their sound is undeniably retro. It’s Basil Kirchin, Françoise Hardy and Faust jumbled together, it’s mining old OSTs for a snippet of a melody, it’s mucking about with obscure vintage gear – they manage to sound at once obsessive and geeky and breezily cool, in that cruising in a cabrio in a new wave film kind of way.

Their work is also marked by an engagement with left-wing thought and surrealist literature, and with vocals in English and French and a musical net cast wide, they were a breath of fresh air against the backdrop of Britpop, which they weren’t always that far away from: Sadier contributed to Blur’s ‘To the End’ and they supported Pulp. In 1996, The Wire referred to their output as “experimental music that actually sells”.

Across 13 studio albums and loads of sprawling comps and EPs, they’re a group in constant evolution. Some lamented that they eventually went a bit “easy listening” and lost some of their verve, weighed down by their intricate arrangements, but albums like ‘Dots and Loops’ have their own vibrancy which was just as forward thinking at the time.

Pharrell Williams and Tyler, the Creator are fans, and they’ve gone on to influence many other groups. With ‘the groop’ back in the UK for their first shows in over 10 years and a reissue campaign in progress, here’s where to start…

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'Emperor Tomato Ketchup'

From 1996, ‘Emperor Tomato Ketchup’ nods both to their forceful, stripped-back beginnings and to the directions they would subsequently take.

‘Cybele’s Reverie’ is a majestic, emotionally-charged track on which Sadier sings of a childhood kinder and more authentic. The Jools Holland performance is worth watching.

There’s ‘Metronomic Underground’’s staticy groove, the hyper 5/4 madness of ‘Percolator’, Hansen’s harmonies and the motorik pulse on ‘Les Yper-Sound’, the rockier push of ‘The Noise of Carpet’, ‘Monstre Sacre’’s eldritch stillness, or the way ‘Slow Fast Hazel’ segues between floaty, airy strings and something much more urgent.

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'Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements'

Without the mass of instruments and influences, the one with the yellow cover whose title you always forget is Stereolab at their most direct and intuitive. A few chords, a few distorted guitars, some “la la las”, a bit of organ, a simple beat – this is the formula they mostly stick to.

The drawn-out bridge of ‘Pack Yr Romantic Mind’ (2:10-3:06) is beautifully lush. ‘Pause’’s vocal harmonies work around a sample from a shortwave radio station and ‘Our Trinitone Blast’ is imbued with a franticness lacking later on.

At almost 20 minutes long (reduced to 3:53 for the single), ‘Jenny Ondioline’ is a tongue-in-cheek wig out which puts you in a trance.

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'Dots And Loops'

Unquestionably Stereolab at their most groovy and sophisticated, ‘Dots and Loops’ is a startling refusal to rest on one’s laurels. Compare the vamp of ‘Miss Modular’ and the Amon Düül II-sampling ‘Diagonals’ to 1992’s Velvet Underground-aping ‘Peng!’ and you’ll be amazed.

Five years isn’t even that long. It’s full of unique sonics – on ‘Diagonals’ an organ and drum machine are fed through a vocoder – which give the whole thing a sheen of sweet, dripping polyphony, as on the ghostly passage of ‘Prisoner of Mars’ (1:25-2:40).

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'Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night'

They’ve been opening recent shows with closer ‘Come And Play In The Milky Night’, on which Sadier coos over an intricate pattern, probably because it contains a sort of quiet urgency that eases you into the rest of their set.

Here you’ll also find two versions of ‘Blue Milk’, one of Bradford Cox’s favourite tunes. The 11-minute version is more successful in the way it builds up – around the seven-minute mark it just lifts off, then it segues into something even more vigorous.

There’s a seductive darkness to all the weird voicings in ‘Puncture In The Radak Permutation’, which gets eerie two minutes in, before Hansen takes centre stage, while ‘Infinity Girl’ is eminently danceable.

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'Sound Dust'

Recorded with Jim O’Rourke and John McEntire of Tortoise, there’s an odd ambiguity that lingers over ‘Sound Dust’. Neither especially dark or bright-sounding, its arrangements are full bodied and intricate, like a wrought-iron railing.

Two of its strongest songs follow a similar structure: ‘Spacemoth’, which draws on Morin and Rouch’s 1961 doc ‘Chronique d'un été’, leaps to life at 1:39 and ‘Baby Lulu’ at 1:05. Their openers are film score-like and their developments imbued with a certain restrained majesty. ‘Hallucinex’ and ‘Nought More Terrific Than Man’ sound like the group at their most relaxed, whilst ‘Nothing To Do With Me’ paraphrases Chris Morris’s Jam with the final lines “You're not a doctor, you're a wanker”.

Across their work, there’s an absurdist side to them, a certain mischievousness which has its roots in détournement and Situationist thinking. What other band would sing about the “economical cycle”, slumps and bloody wars over a gorgeous, radiant melody, as on 1994 single ‘Ping Pong’?

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Words: Wilf Skinner

Stereolab's full catalogue is available on vinyl through Warp. Catch the band at the following shows:

20 Newcastle Boiler Shop
21 Leeds Leeds Uni Stylus
22 Glasgow SWG3 Galvinisers
24 Belfast Empire
25 Dublin Vicar Street

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