Refried Tomato Chords
Regular and long-term readers will know of my preference for those musical artists who follow their own bent (even if it means bending their own followers), hence my articles down the years on Kraftwerk, Sparks, The Silver Apples and Al Stewart to name but four.
Well, here's another one culled from my determination to catch up on artists I knew about and had heard, but not heard all that much by.
Stereolab was formed in 1990 by Englishman Tim Gane (former front-man with the political indie band McCarthy during the previous decade) and French singer and lyricist Laetitia Sadier (who had provided some vocals for McCarthy, and was also in a relationship with Gane at the time).
Their first release was the Super 45 EP in May 1991, which demonstrated an indie-style feel typical of its time, such as might have been heard from, say, Slowdive. Here's The Light That Will Cease To Fail from that disc:
Further singles followed, and by the time of their first album (1992's Peng!), it was clear that much more was going on than just what the music press - with their customary patronising laziness - was calling 'shoegaze'.
Harmonium was another single rather than an LP track, but it showed far more of the band's musical influences than before, the song being a development of Mellotron from Peng! (which in turn had shades of the aforementioned Silver Apples in its own ancestry). This combination of organ-led drones and textures and a motorik rhythm marked the first time I had really noticed Stereolab after the track was played on his show by that one-man breaker of new and interesting talent, the still-much-missed John Peel:
There are two more singles from this period I want to point you at now. The first is Jenny Ondioline. This originally appeared as an eighteen-minute-long item on the band's 1993 album Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, but was re-configured as a sub-four-minute single. The sense of 'Neu!-meets-Sonic-Youth' is hard to avoid:
(The full-length version demonstrated another tendency of Stereolab during this time - and for the band's entire output, truth be told - namely the dividing up of tracks into distinct 'movements' where the pace, style and ambience of the track would change, sometimes radically).
The other song I've picked from this period featured on the same EP as Jenny Ondioline, but also as a single in its own right. French Disko displays the same elements as on the previous two tracks I've linked to. I've pointed you here to a clip which displays the lyrics because it touches on another notable aspect of Stereolab's work:
Whether or not it is because Laetitia Sadier was writing in a language other than her native one, a regular feature of her English lyrics (and not so obvious on her French ones) is that the rhythm and emphasis of the words are adapted to the cadences and beat of the music rather than the more customary way round. In this case, for instance, "...an absurd place to be living in...", "...withdrawal...", ..."a fact of life...", "...men have to kill one another...". This can be pretty jarring to the more finicky of us, but it is one more distinctive feature of their songs.
With regard to the actual texts themselves, where they are not - as it were - standard lyrics for pop songs, or not stream-of-consciousness, they display - as in French Disko - a distinctly political bent. Some of the self-regarding crits went so far as to say that they were 'Marxist' in their expression. Tim Gane, however, stated quite clearly that - despite the fact that McCarthy had been a decidedly left-wing band in its own lyrics - he had never read any of old Karl at all, and Sadier said that she had read only a small amount. The politics of Stereolab's lyrics were undoubtedly of a left-of-centre perspective (more down to the influence of Situationism than classical Marxism), but only went to prove that you don't have to have an erudite philosophical underpinning for sentiments which are just simply humane.
Having gained the imprimatur of the Sage Of Stowmarket and the resulting critical acclaim, two of the next three Stereolab albums - 1994's Mars Audiac Quintet and Emperor Tomato Ketchup from 1996 were extremely successful, although I have to admit that I found them somewhat less engaging that what came before or afterwards.
The LP inbetween, however, saw a collaboration with the American sculptor Charles Long for his exhibition The Amorphous Body Study Center. Much of the music on the resulting mini-album showed something of a change of style which pointed towards what was coming, with a greater emphasis on a sort of sixties-style lounge jazz (a perception strengthened by the similarity of Laetitia Sadier's voice to that of Astrud Gilberto). Here's The Extension Trip:
It was 1997 when Stereolab extended that particular trip on the album Dots And Loops. Here's Brakhage (named for the American experimental film-maker), which after the opening few seconds develops into an updated jazz-fusion workout with - to these old ears at least - a nod towards the sort of music Frank Zappa was producing in the mid-1970s:
1999's Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night (Stereolab's titles are always off-beat to the point of being downright bizarre; I've combined words from three of them for the title of this piece, and they don't make any less sense like that than they do in their original locations) continued the same style, with some tracks adding a degree of funk to the mix. Here's Infinity Girl:
To really hear the Latin inflections (as the music hacks would put it), you need to go to Outer Bongolia, as featured on the 2000 mini-album The First Of The Microbe Hunters:
It was after the release of 2001's Sound-Dust that tragedy struck the band when Mary Hansen - who had been second guitarist and second vocalist since early in Stereolab's existence, and whose vocal interplay with Sadier had been a key factor in the band's sound, especially live - was killed in a road accident in London in December 2002. After a suitable period of mourning, the surviving members reconvened to produce 2003's Margerine Eclipse, which showed some return to the band's earlier stylings. Ladies and gentlemen, let us spread some Margerine Rock:
Possibly as an effect of the loss of Hansen, or of the ending of Gane and Sadier's personal relationship at around the same time, or simply of changing tastes and ambitions, Stereolab's productivity slowed noticeably during the 2000s, and while they continued to release singles throughout that decade (which, like nearly all their singles, have subsequently been issued on the Switched On series of compilations, the latest of which - Electrically Possessed (Switched On Vol. 4) - is released this very week), only two further full albums were to be forthcoming. From 2008's Chemical Chords, here's a remarkable near-perfect take on 1967 sunshine pop (harpsichord, strings, bass and all), Cellulose Sunshine:
In 2010, the band's management announced that Stereolab were going on an extended hiatus, leaving us with one final album, Not Music (the cover design of which is laid out in such a way as to lead some possibly to think that it was an album called Snot Music by a band called 'Tereolab'). From it, here's the closing track, Neon Beanbag (which had featured originally on Chemical Chords) given an ambient remix by Atlas Sound, aka Bradford Cox:
And that was that. It would be 2019 before Stereolab were heard from again, when they played a series of gigs to promote the reissuing/repackaging of their back catalogue. There is no word at present whether any new material might be in the offing, but better no new stuff than something which might not live up to the quirky legacy that they have already left to us.
Although Stereolab never gained a great deal more than a series of succès d'estime, they gave the music of the 1990s and 2000s a series of determinedly idiosyncratic styles and visions (like calling an early EP, Stunning Debut Album, for example). Even when they were less than stellar, they were never less than interesting, and that counts for an awful lot in my book.