Whenever I encounter the term ‘Stereolabesque’ I’m reminded of a scene from the overlooked, though underrated, animated series Mission Hill. Its protagonist, a cartoonist, explains how one of his pieces satirises the overuse of the term ‘Kafkaesque’. “It is a satire of people who say ‘Kafkaesque’ when a situation is not Kafkaesque,” he groans. Stereolabesque is likewise reductive, a catch-all synonym for any music that deals in motorik pulse and/or oscillating synthesisers and/or choppy, single-chord guitar vamps—Stereolab’s favoured but by no means only songwriting tools.
The Stereolabesque argument was probed in How to Make a Watch, the entertaining and surprisingly contentious tour diary centring on the Los Angeles band Dummy. Its writer Mariana Timony notes how Dummy wince at comparisons to the Anglo-French groop—“not because Stereolab is bad or because it’s untrue,” she clarifies, “but because it’s such a superficial way of interpreting both bands’s music.” “‘Stereolab isn’t a genre,’” Dummy’s guitarist Alex Ewell adds. “‘Their whole shtick was that they were a super eclectic band and they had all these influences.’” Indeed, Stereolab’s sound, like the work of Franz Kafka, contains nuanced multitudes. And the latest entry in the band’s ‘Switched On’ compilation series—volume five, ‘Pulse of the Early Brain’; their ninth overall compilation—plays like it was compiled in response to this, and to the band’s reappraisal following their reunion in 2019. A crazy quilt of musique concrète, cosmic pop, and plink-plonk bossa, ‘Pulse of the Early Brain’ bares the band’s multitudes in their most unfiltered forms.
‘Early Brain’s first two tracks, ‘Simple Headphone Mind’ and ‘Trippin’ with the Birds’, ostensibly weed out the Stereolabesque users and cursory acquaintances. In collaboration with British experimental composer Steven Stapleton of Nurse With Wound, these free-form improvisations are ten- and 20-minutes-long respectively. Enigmatic phrases such as “spiders” and “milky white” jut out from the debris of deconstructed krautrock—percussive clangs and hypnagogic synth motifs. (In other words, there’s little overlap with the delightfully sugary ‘Lo Boob Oscillator’.). After 32-minutes of this immersive but not-so-easy listening, the tension releases into the major key organ/guitar pairing of ‘Low Fi’, which hits like a wall of clean air after alighting an overcrowded train. First released in 1992 (along with the three succeeding tracks: the ‘Low Fi EP’), ‘Low Fi’ is reminiscent of early fan favourites such as ‘I’m Going Out of My Way’. It’s also the first time we hear the warming lilt of frontwoman Lætitia Sadier, always the dependable foil to Tim Gane’s avant-garde arrangements.
‘Early Brain’ continues to run the gamut from motorik pop (‘Robot Riot’, ‘Yes Sir! I Can Moogie’) to tone poem soundscapes such as the bebop-tinged ‘Symbolic Logic of Now!’. There are different iterations of back catalogue staples, too—a previously unreleased demo of ‘Ronco Symphony’ from 1993 marks halftime, and there’s a sputtering quasi-techno remix of the ‘Dots and Loops’ track ‘Refractions in the Plastic Pulse’ by electro duo Autechre. Also included is the band’s reimagining of a Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra piece, which they dub ‘Blaue Milch’ in a language-appropriate nod to their 1999 minimalist masterpiece ‘Blue Milk’. And the curtain closes with a live rendition of the inimitable ‘Cybele’s Reverie’, one of the finest songs they ever managed.
Taken as a whole, the latest ‘Switched On’ collection manages to be simultaneously the most and the least Stereolabesque offering from the groop’s formidable portfolio. At times challenging, at others familiar and accessible, it demonstrates that 30 years after their debut album, Stereolab continue to surprise and reward, their unabating influence threading through every recess of left-of-centre modern music. Perhaps Stereolabesque is a fair term after all.
Words: Hayden Merrick
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