Stereolab may be the quintessential 90s band, and yet they may have arrived both too late and too early.
That’s OK. This was a band that dwelled in contradictions.
- Their lyrics dealt with the outrages of a bloodthirsty and money-hungry capitalist monster, and their album titles sounded like Monty Python sketches. (Check out Jools Holland hyping Emperor To-MAH-to Ketchup or just relish the apparent self-parody of Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements.)
- They married avant-garde classical minimalism with the sweet counterpoint lead and near-lead vocals of Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen. (Later releases veered more toward jazz — most biographers use the term “lounge-pop” at some point.)
- They had tons of synthesizer noises, along with the cheesiest organ sounds this side of the Monkees.
- Their mix of minimalism and Continental philosophy sounds like something dreamed up in academia, yet founder/guitarist Tim Gane had enough of a playful streak to anticipate the advent of the flash mob with a clever trick at music stores — he and some friends would turn up and start tinkering with different instruments, then suddenly burst into a song together.
You could argue Stereolab was several entities at once. Check out the tune Jenny Ondioline, a typical non-sequitur song title referring to an old synthesizer. They made a charming pop video for it, changing the word “fucked” to “sucked” (which somehow seems more profane to me, but I didn’t set Western standards for vulgarity). The album version? A 18-minute epic of minimalist dream pop punctuated by infrequent peals of feedback.
AV Club summed it up well: “Retro future.”
Without that sense of humor and predilection toward contradiction, Stereolab might have come across as a rather preachy band of neo-socialists. The lyrics to Jenny Ondioline are much darker than the soothing drone of guitar and synths would lead you to believe: “I don’t care if the fascists have to win/ I don’t care democracy’s being fucked / I don’t care socialism’s full of sin / THE WHOLE … TROUBLED system engenders rot” (the caps there represent one of many attempts to decipher the lyrics through Sadier’s heavy French accent and her Alanis Morissette-ish tendency to emPHAsize the wrong sylLABle).
But those lyrics are, as with so many aspects of the band, so well suited for a time other than the 90s. They resonate quite well in the Bernie Sanders era, don’t they?
My Stereolab experience was, like many of my late 80s/early 90s musical experience, steered by something I read in Musician or maybe Rolling Stone. Then I saw them on a side stage at a big radio festival, where I thought they were kind of fun but perhaps an odd fit, better suited to a thoughtful crowd in a club than a bunch of North Carolinians baking in the sun all day. That was enough for me to pick up Mars Audiac Quintet, their 1994 release and third full-length album.
That album sets the tone early with Three-Die Melodie. We get five minutes of the same root note on bass and however many synthesizers they packed in, while the organ plays a slow three-note hook. Sadier enters with a pleasant melody that belies what she’s singing — and I for one didn’t know the lyrics until I looked them up a week ago: “Hideous on the edge of a precipice” starts us off, and then we get “beyond there’s no retribution only war.”
The chorus is one repeated line, and it’s hardly typical singalong fare: “The meaning of existence can’t be supplied by religion or ideology.” By the time Sadier sings it for the third time, Hansen adds another layer of sweetness to the philosophical medicine — “ba da bop bop / ba da bop bop / ba da bop bop buh BAH dah, ba da, da da.” It’s Ring Around the Rosie for the 1990s.
And that’s pretty typical of the rest of the album. Nihilist Assault Group investigates the concept of “morals,” which they see twisted into censorship and control. Wow and Flutter ponders the mortality of brand names like IBM and the U.S. flag. We do get the occasional rhythmic change of pace — ever-present drummer Andy Ramsay is this band’s secret weapon, tossing in a few subtle fills and beat changes in the droning songs and propelling the shifty Transporte Sans Bouger. (Yes, some of their songs are en francais. Bonne chance.)
Wow and Flutter is a little more mainstream than much of the album. It has actual chord changes and a few hooks, for one thing, and they aren’t as off-the-wall as L’Enfer des Formes (B, F#, D#?).
But the subject here is a rare genuine pop song from this eccentric outfit: Ping Pong. Just check out the cheerful video, with Sadier and Hansen playing Star Trek-style 3D chess while someone walks around handcuffed to an ominous-looking metal suitcase.
It’s like and yet unlike the rest of the album. Hansen’s vocals are as deceptively upbeat as always, that organ sound (which does tend to get a little monotonous if you listen to the whole album in one sitting) is front and center, and Sadier is singing a catchy melody about historical patterns, economic cycles and wars.
There’s only millions that lose their jobs and homes and sometimes accents
There’s only millions that die in their bloody wars, it’s all right
The ironic detachment here is revved up to 11. She even sings “Don’t worry be happy,” which makes us Bobby McFerrin fans scream that he did much more resonant work aside from his one big hit.
And the hooks? All over the place. Ramsay plays some full-fledged fills, actual guitar riffs stand out in the mix, and they bring in a horn section that sounds like it’s playing on a lounge act’s Christmas song.
(Note to self: Find a Stereolab Christmas song. Mellowmas can never die.)
So if you’re looking for a good introduction to Stereolab, this is it. They’re always going to be a bittersweet listen, not least because Mary Hansen was killed in a bicycling accident in 2002 that prompted a touching tribute in The Guardian to a shy but popular free spirit.
The world would surely be a happier place with more Mary Hansens. And a more thoughtful place with more Laetitia Sadiers.
It’s OK if you can’t make it through all 18 minutes of Jenny Ondioline or every single organ-drone anthem on these early Stereolab albums. The deep cuts aren’t for everyone. But play Ping Pong and hope it inspires more musicians with pop sensibilities to explore some deeper fare.