Sometime in the mid 1990s, I first heard Stereolab – it was unlike anything I knew… yet entirely familiar.
How do you classify Stereolab? It’s a little electronic, a little rock, often French, a bit new wave, a bit classical, a bit pop. It’s filled with infectious ever-changing rhythms and sounds, and an endless array of instrumentation – everything from buzz-saw guitars to Moog organs to sliced-up xylophones. Topping it off are the interlaced vocals of Laetitia Sadier rambling on in diva-esque French as often as English, and Mary Hansen backing with a flourish of lovely ba-da-dums. You might consider it 21st-century lounge music. It’s something you’d expect to hear while relaxing on futuristic furniture, contemplating the clouds with your fellow cyborgs.
For years I didn’t give them much thought as my musical tastes wandered all over the map. The band didn’t stop though. They released a flurry of albums throughout the 1990s and 2000s, each exploring new ground, and slightly evolving always in interesting ways. Eventually I picked up another album… and another. As I started building a library of Stereolab songs, it took over more and more of my headphone time. I got all their albums. Then, thanks to the Internet, I found tons of singles and other obscure tracks, until I thought I had everything they’d released. About this time (2009), the band released their final 2 albums, and went on a “permanent hiatus”.
But, I didn’t stop listening… just the opposite. Somehow, Stereolab has become the background to my life. The amount of music they produced is immense, and I love nearly every track. Even recently, I’ve been discovering new tracks… I’m now up to about 304, including a few live sessions and collaborations. That kind of depth means it just never gets old. Even if I listen to hours a day, there isn’t much repetition. I simply can’t decide which I like best, or even why. But, at this point I must have listened to more Stereolab than only a few others on this planet. Thanks to iTunes keeping track of my habits, I know that most of their catalog has over 100 listens… a few over 200.
In case you’ve never heard of them, I thought I’d make this post a bit of an introduction… perhaps a thanks to “The Groop… and a bit of a love letter too. It’d be futile to make a “best of Stereolab” list – their music is too consistently rich. Every time I start a new tune, I think to myself “maybe this is my favorite…”. So, consider this just a sampling.
To start things off, how about one of their more accessible and dare I say “popular” songs from the mid 1990s, Wow and Flutter. It’s not especially representative (no backing vocals?), but it’s a nice little tune. Interestingly, this version on YouTube is a different mix than what’s on the album Mars Audiac Quintet.
Taking a hard switch to classic Stereolab of the late 1990s, how about this track from Dots and Loops – Rainbo Conversation. What is this song about? start guessing.
If you really want to get deep, try Refractions in the Plastic Pulse – the very next track on Dots and Loops. It’s 17 minutes long with 3 or 4 distinct parts twisting throughout – how do you even classify the part that starts at the 8:08 mark? If you stick through this whole track… you’re hooked.
Just about every track on Cobra and Phases is Classic Stereolab… and I could post any one of them here to get at their essence. But, I’ll leave you with the last track, Come And Play in the Milky Night – a simply-constructed and especially lovely tune.
Stereolab started their run a bit heavier, with droning, buzzing guitars. Their first few releases follow this style. But, even here the elements that make them unique are being developed. A great example of this early period is John Cage Bubblegum.
Stereolab were masters at the the limited-release, only-in-Japan, pink-vinyl b-side singles, that nobody knew even existed until years down the road. The difference with Stereolab is that nearly all of these obscure tracks are interesting. I’m not sure if the band considered them throwaways, but I’ve kept them in heavy rotation. How does it get any more 21st-century lounge than Fluorescences? One of those singles that’s easy to overlook.
Stereolab’s song and album titles are often da-da-esque nonsense, but the songs themselves are filled with intricate stories & observations. Deciphering the dreamy lyrics opens another dimension. I’d listened to International Colouring Contest for years without bothering to hear what was said… in part:
Before Armstrong took his steps she’d been there with friends
They took all instruments and recorded on the moon
Gathered variety of sound from where the air is different
Then there’s a song like Long Life Love – one of their very best, and a rarity with Mary Hansen on lead vocals. It’s another track they just quietly popped onto an EP. The story is about as involving as the song.
The skeletal ghost twirling in the sea
For having been disobeyed to people
The father had drowned his daughter’s body
No one could remember why exactly
A lost fisherman thought he’d caught big fish
The hanging bones were instead nightmarish
He rushed back home with her caught in his line
Lit a fire which appeased his panic
Kind ladies untangled her from her cling
To keep her warm covered with furs and hides
Starting to soften in the warm silence
Fell asleep untempted by her presence
He was dreaming, a tear formed in his eyes
She saw it shine, suddenly felt thirsty
Unfurled her bones, brought her mouth to the tears
She drank and drank, it felt like a river
Plunged her hand in and gently pulled his heart
Harp and full drum that would follow her prayer
They woke up all entwined breath against breath
Got up to live by the sea where they were fed
By the ocean
No they are not afraid death has its place
In order to create, in order to live
She’d beat the drum and would sing for new flesh
Sing for hair, eyes, chubby legs, hands, and breasts
All that are warm and needs (?wood and surface??)
She sang some more to bear the sleeping child
Slipped in back with him new skin against skin
Returned the harp and magnificent drum
This crazy fairy-tale is set against what otherwise sounds almost like a children’s song… but is anything but.
This came about the same time Sound-Dust was released… One of my favorite albums, and possibly their least-discussed. A number of tracks on Sound-dust have wonderful trippy transitions such as Space Moth or Double Rocker, with the tune finishing completely not where it starts. They delved into darker territory with Suggestion Diabolique. The transition/jam after the 3:22 mark is about as good as it gets.
Tragically, Mary Hansen died in a biking accident in 2002, soon after Sound-Dust was released. The band marched onward, surely shaken… and while they lost Mary’s special sparkle, what remained was as interesting as ever. Their next album – Margerine Eclipse – was essentially a tribute to Mary as only Stereolab could produce. Feel and Triple is an obvious heartfelt message to Mary. Sudden Stars is a bit more subtle.
Stereolab kept at it for 7 years after Mary’s death, releasing dozens of additional tracks. Their sound continued to evolve, now with Laetitia shouldering the load of vocals. The songs on Chemical Chords are shorter and more straightforward, but no less inventive or infectious. For a sample try Valley Hi!
I could go on and on with more tracks, but this post is already too long. While Stereolab isn’t exactly a secret, it seems to me that they were never as popular as they might have been. Perhaps it was too much French? Perhaps some of their live performances were a bit stiff (with this music, there’s simply a lot of standing around – no other way to perform it.), But most likely, it’s simply because Stereolab was too unique for the fleeting attention spans deciding what’s popular – How do you package something that doesn’t fit into a box?