Across the ‘90s and ‘00s, there were few groups as exploratory, as productive, and as exciting to follow as Stereolab.
Helmed for their duration by English guitarist and songwriter Tim Gane and nextFrench vocalist and lyricist Laetitia Sadier, Stereolab formed in 1990 out of the ashes of McCarthy, the agit-pop group Gane had been in for the second half of the ‘80s. Sadier had met Gane at a McCarthy gig in Paris, and she’d been a member of the group in its final days. When they decided to start making music together again, Stereolab was born: a multi-limbed musical collective unafraid of the joys of pop melody but equally comfortable with wild experimentation.
Gane and Sadier also started their own record label, Duophonic, with their manager Martin Pike. While the label ended up releasing other groups (Tortoise, Labradford, Broadcast, Pram, The High Llamas, Huggy Bear, and the pre-Daft Punk Darlin’ all appeared on the label at some point), it is best known for releasing almost all the Stereolab albums and singles (on the UHF Disks imprint) while pumping out limited 7” and 10” singles (on the Super 45s imprint).
Some have claimed Stereolab were detached, studious, overly intellectual. Listening to their music, though, and with the benefit of hindsight, nothing feels further from the truth: this music is alive, rich with melody, harmony and texture, gesturing towards genres and other artists in all their wild multiplicity. They may have been on indefinite hiatus since 2009, but these records will have a long, strong afterlife.
Super 45 EP (Duophonic 10”, 1991)
Stereolab puzzled the British music press when they first appeared: they were a group with a finely honed vision from the off, which meant writers couldn’t project their own desires onto their music. I mention this as the British music press is how many of us first discovered Stereolab, and the cumulative effect was to shroud singles like Super 45 in mystery. There was something inexplicable about their provenance; they just appeared.
With the benefit of hindsight, Stereolab’s debut single sets out their stall fairly clearly, with the two-chord percolation of ‘The Light That Will Cease To Fail’ circled by two versions of ‘Au Grand Jour’ – one tentative, the other furious – and the soaring pop of ‘Brittle’. There was something there in the lyrics, too, a program for socio-political engagement that Sadier would refine over the years. The first and most significant hint, though, lies in the runout etching: ‘Neu Kids On The Block’.
Super-Electric (Too Pure 10”, 1991)
Stereolab’s first release on London label Too Pure, where they rubbed shoulders with PJ Harvey, Th’ Faith Healers and Pram, is the consummate example of the group’s early form. On ‘Super-Electric’ the pieces fall into place so effortlessly: Joe Dilworth’s drums ride out the Klaus Dinger pulse while Gane’s guitars chime incessantly, and bubbling electronics disrupt the song’s coast.
While it’s fair to say this is Stereolab at their most NEU!-influenced, the big difference – and the significance of this must not be underestimated – is the hymnal pop melancholy at the heart of Sadier and Gina Morris’s duel vocals. One of the main achievements of early Stereolab is placing some of krautrock’s more experimental tendencies within pop music, and ‘Super-Electric’ is exemplary in this respect. The titular 10” single also features some great B-sides, particularly the gentle comedown of ‘High Expectation’, and ‘Contact’’s graceful glide.
The runout etchings this time are Burroughs (“A riot with two tape machines”) and Baudelaire: “Il faut toujours être ivre,” or, “Always be drunk”. Remember the following line from ‘Enivrez-vous’ though: “De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise,” or, “Whether wine, poetry or virtue, the choice is yours”.
Peng! (Too Pure LP, 1992)
After the early EPs, Stereolab’s debut album didn’t need to do much convincing. If anything, Peng! suffers a little from its length; Super 45 and Super-Electric are perfectly designed, but Peng! drags at times. Having said that, there are plenty of great songs on here, and in ‘Stomach Worm’ the group created their other early classic, matching the primal pound of glam at its best with the scouring noise that would become a trademark of Stereolab’s live shows. Elsewhere, it’s the sideways glimpses that are most compelling – the morbid levitation of ‘Super Falling Star’, the Young Marble Giants glimmer of ‘K-Stars’ and ‘Surrealchemist”s extended unravelling are all unexpected and welcome detours.
Low-Fi (Too Pure 10”, 1992)
Low-Fi marks one of the final appearances of Cliff, the totemic figure from Stereolab’s record covers taken from Anton Holtz Portmann’s comic strip Der Tödliche Finger (“The Deadly Finger”) in the Swiss underground magazine Hotcha!. Low-Fi also closes down the first phase of the group’s existence, and what better way to go out than with reflection?
The album itself crawls stealthily, an update on the measured dynamic of ‘Contact’ (from Switched On), but it’s the rest of the EP that surprises, from the rushes of drone-noise between songs to the unexpected guitar/piano allegory of ‘Elektro (He Held The World In His Iron Grip)’.
‘(Varoom!)’ and ‘Laissez-Faire’ boil down Stereolab’s metronomic pop to its essence, and in retrospect come close to signing off on this phase of their music with an effortless groove. Most significantly, Low-Fi welcomes two key and long-serving members to the group, with Andy Ramsay replacing Dilworth on drums, and Mary Hansen joining on vocals.
The Groop Played “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music” (Too Pure LP, 1993)
‘We’re Not Adult Oriented’ might offer the thread that connects Peng! to 1994’s Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, but The Groop Played “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music” is significant for other reasons, not least the first appearance on a Stereolab record of Sean O’Hagan, ex-Microdisney member, current and future High Llama, and arranger supreme.
Bachelor Pad Music is surprising for the light it lets into the group’s world, with songs like ‘Avant-Garde M.O.R.’ and ‘The Groop Play Chord X’ feeling like a deep exhale after the wound tension of Peng! and Low-Fi. The album marks the beginning of Stereolab’s ongoing fascination with ersatz lounge music (a genre that smuggled the strange into the everyday with surprising consistency) but also proves that Gane could write genuinely graceful and moving melodies, and ‘Ronco Symphony’ still rings true as one of Stereolab’s most unaffected, lovely songs.
The cover art was lifted from a Vanguard Records hi-fi test album; indeed, the group’s name comes from Vanguard’s “stereophonic demonstration discs”, another repurposing of the seeming detritus of popular culture.
Jenny Ondioline (Duophonic 10”, 1993)
An edited ‘Jenny Ondioline’ ushers in the Transient Random-Noise era of the group. By now a fully-fledged fan, there was something thrilling about my first encounter with this record, the glorious rush of ‘Jenny Ondioline’ counterbalanced by ‘Golden Ball’’s abject surrealism, the ghosted anti-ballad of ‘Fruition’ and Stereolab’s most direct pop song yet, ‘French Disco’.
The latter song would eventually have a life of its own, but the Jenny Ondioline EP covers so much territory: there’s an album’s worth of ideas in here, but tightened up, no excess. For all their prodigious output, the best Stereolab records displayed a real knack for self-editing, and Jenny Ondioline is a great example of the group’s less-is-more dynamism.
Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements (Duophonic LP, 1993)
Tim Gane has said Transient Random-Noise Bursts was a nightmare to record. In essay collection Marooned: The Next Generation Of Desert Island Discs, he told Douglas Wolk, “Making that record was pure hell… In the end, I hated it, and I’ve pretty much hated it ever since.” Listening back, it’s certainly an anomaly, and in many ways the contemporaneous singles – ‘French Disko’, ‘John Cage Bubblegum’ and ‘Lo Boob Oscillator’ – are closer to the true spirit of Stereolab.
However, Transient Random-Noise Bursts introduces some Stereolab trademarks – the side-long song-suite of ‘Jenny Ondioline’, blossoming out of a lift from Rhys Chatham’s ‘Die Donnergötter’ and expanded to 18 minutes, is the first of many across their subsequent albums – and also adds more grit and ferocity into their songs, particularly on ‘Our Trinitone Blast’ and ‘Crest’. The dark heart of the album, though, might be the unexpected side-steps, like the underwater pulse of ‘Pause’, the starkly etched moon-song of ‘Lock-Groove Lullaby’, and the Modern Lovers lilt of ‘I’m Going Out Of My Way’.
To finish things off, there’s another knowing cover heist too – this time, from the Hi-Fi Sound series of test records.
Stereolab/Nurse With Wound
‘Crumb Duck’ (Clawfist 10”, 1993)
For the group’s first collaboration with Nurse With Wound (more a warped remix than an actual collaboration, as they never shared studio space) you can hear Steven Stapleton, NWW’s éminence grise, tearing into Stereolab’s material with glee, mutating it into abstruse patterns and building lattices of illogical rhythms. There are points in ‘Animal Or Vegetable (A Wonderful Wooden Reason…)’ where Stapleton’s collage aesthetic goes into overdrive, but the body of the 14-minute piece is a tribal thud that’s pure ‘It’s A Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl’.
By contrast the B-side, ‘Exploding Head Movie’, takes part two of ‘Jenny Ondioline’ from Transient Random-Noise Bursts and decimates it through flanging, phasing and electronic trickery while keeping the body of the song relatively intact, the better to emphasise its debts to Messrs Dinger and Rother.
Gane had originally pegged Stapleton as producer for Peng!, but the latter turned down the project as he deemed Stereolab “too rock”. It’s tempting to think how Peng! might have come out via the NWW grinder, but this single – the closest Stereolab ever got to pure krautrock tribute, at the hands of a master collector of the genre – was probably the stronger outcome, anyway.
Unavoidable reference: The “wonderful wooden reason” in the title of the A-side comes from the lyrics to Faust’s ‘Meadow Meal’.
‘John Cage Bubblegum’ (Slumberland 7”, 1993)
They may have released better records, but ‘John Cage Bubblegum’ is Stereolab’s finest 7″ single; no mean feat for a group that used the format so well. Their singles often feel like diary entries, explorations of particular creative zones, but ‘John Cage Bubblegum’ acts differently, tying together the first three years of their output with one sweep of the hand.
Circling around lyrics from Saint-Exupéry’s book The Little Prince (“c’est le plus beau et c’est le plus triste paysage du monde”, translated as “it’s the most beautiful and saddest landscape in the world”) the group churn through four chords with dogged persistence. It’s another furiously driven song, which serves to remind us that, for all the talk of Stereolab’s ‘electro-pop’ credentials, they could play loud and fierce with the best of ‘em. Don’t keep all the love for ‘John Cage Bubblegum’, though – the B-side, ‘Eloge D’Eros’, has another irresistible melody, and a beautiful construction where claustrophobic verses open to full flourish in a lovely chorus.
‘Mountain’ (From split single with Unrest, Teenbeat 7”, 1993)
A personal favourite for its stealthy, insinuating groove, combined with the descending vocal melody from Sadier and Hansen’s gorgeous counterpoint, ‘Mountain’ is one of the group’s more underrated moments.
It originally nestled, relatively hidden, on a tour single from Stereolab’s dates with Unrest, but like a number of their 1992 and 1993 singles, ‘Mountain’ eventually landed on Refried Ectoplasm, their second compilation of singles and rarities. One of the joys of the group’s final tour was the revved-up, frantic version of ‘Mountain’ that often opened their set, and the song lost none of its sting in the intervening years.
‘French Disko’ (Duophonic 7”, 1994)
Possibly the closest Stereolab have come to a runaway hit, the original ‘French Disco’ landed a surprising amount of airplay on British radio when it originally appeared on the Jenny Ondioline EP. A new version of ‘French Disko’ – note all-important change of spelling – was subsequently released, with the 7” single available on the group’s European tour. As with the live ‘Mountain’, ‘French Disko’’s momentum is irresistible, with Gane’s guitars clanging through the gates while Sadier and Hansen ride one of his most memorable melodies, a defiant call-to-arms against collective laissez-faire.
Mars Audiac Quintet (Duophonic LP, 1994)
Mars Audiac Quintet is often considered Stereolab’s strongest record, and it’s certainly a smart claim: they cover a lot of terrain across its four sides, their sound taking in becalmed miniatures (‘Des Étoiles Électroniques’, ‘The Stars Our Destination’, and the honeyed Lucia Pamela tribute ‘International Colouring Contest’), metronomic boogie (‘Transona Five’, ‘Transporter Sans Bouger’) and library music instrumentals (‘Fiery Yellow’). It’s also the home to ‘Ping Pong’, one of their best-known songs, matching a lyric about capitalism’s socio-economic cycles over a beat-pop blush.
However, something in the production stops me from fully grasping Mars Audiac Quintet’s essence: at times it seems a bit pallid, and the songs dip a little two-thirds through. The best songs take Stereolab’s interest in interlocking parts and metronomic grooves and explore different terrain, from the modular construction of ‘Nihilist Assault Group’ to the mathematical insistence of ‘Anamorphose’. The latter’s cool precision seems to point the way forward, from a live group recording in the studio, to a studio project exploring the matter of music.
Charles Long & Stereolab
Music For The Amorphous Body Study Center (Duophonic LP, 1995)
Charles Long’s sculpture often tangles with popular culture, including music – a recent piece, 2012’s Pet Sounds, features biomorphic shapes that broadcast samples from the Beach Boys album when hands are run across them. Music For The Amorphous Body Study Center is a much earlier installation grappling with similar ideas, and with Stereolab, it feels like Long found the perfect collaborators, particularly given their often sculptural approach to writing songs (if that doesn’t seem too simplistic an analogy).
It’s also an album held in high esteem by Sadier, who has said it’s one of her favourite Stereolab records. It’s not hard to see why – the group’s performances are graceful and generous, their melodies richer than ever, and there’s a subtle yet warm humour throughout, from the bleeps that disrupt the ticking test-pattern joy of ‘How To Play Your Internal Organs Overnight’, to the reprise of ‘The Extension Trip’ that rises from the ghost of ‘Space Moment’. If anything, it’s the glorious, palatial ‘Space Moment’ itself that’s the highlight – dripping, honeycombed and iridescent, it’s possibly the loveliest song Stereolab recorded.
‘Seeperbold’ from Exclusives (Select Magazine cassette, 1995)
“Seeperbold” comes across as an offcut from the Music For The Amorphous Body Study Center sessions, though it’s far more than just something saved from the cutting-room floor. One of Stereolab’s more endearing habits was gifting great material to compilations: often, their appearance on a compilation was reason enough to pick up the release in question. “Seeperbold” shares a newfound ease with “Pop Quiz” and “Extension Trip” from Amorphous Body Study Center, with Hansen taking an increasingly central role on vocals. “Seeperbold” feels like a showcase for her voice, something that’s particularly evident from the way the see-sawing string arrangement curls around her hypnotic mantra, before lifting the song onto other planes of where.
‘Emperor Tomato Ketchup’ (Duophonic LP, 1996)
For many, Emperor Tomato Ketchup is the emblematic, or quintessential Stereolab album. It landed at a time when their cultural currency was particularly strong, and it certainly had learned lessons from Mars Audiac Quintet’s occasional languors; everything on Emperor Tomato Ketchup is on-point and clearly articulated. The group’s remit is impressive here, from the bowdlerised funk of ‘Metronomic Underground’, through ‘Cybele’s Reverie’’s starlet pop, and on into a clutch of songs that have Stereolab at their most pop-avant (‘Percolations’, ‘Les Yper Sound’, ‘Tomorrow Is Already Here’).
Coming after an extended period of writer’s block for Gane (in an interview for Tape Op he recalled being unable to write for an entire year), Emperor Tomato Ketchup is the first step in an increasingly confident, experimental series of albums for Stereolab. Part of this is due to the breakthrough that shook Gane out of his torpor, using loops, minimalist layering and other structural conceits as the building blocks of songs, something that he’d explore in much greater detail over coming years. If early Stereolab understood complexity-in-simplicity, adopting the fierce minimalism of krautrock to populist ends, later Stereolab grapples with simplicity-in-complexity, building intricate, modular songs out of smaller gestures.
Emperor Tomato Ketchup is also the first album Stereolab recorded with Tortoise’s John McEntire partly at the helm, a working relationship that would carry through much of the next decade. The hive of activity that was the Chicago music community in the mid-to-late 1990s would leave an indelible mark on Stereolab’s music, for the better.
Flourescences (Duophonic 12”, 1996)
The hinge that connects Emperor Tomato Ketchup with Dots and Loops, ‘Flourescences’ itself thatches the bubblegum pop and ‘60s soundtrack arrangements of the former with the sleek, glistening autopilot of the latter. It’s also one of Stereolab’s most understated pop gems. ‘Pinball’ shudders through an insistent pulse and tangled webs of electronics; if only it had kept its original title, ‘Heavenly Van Halen’.
The Fluorescences EP is most notable, though, for the closing ‘Soop Groove #1’, an extended mantra that feels almost like a pop music version of a Shepard tone, endlessly ascending as a drum machine clanks through the song’s singular, unrelenting movement, brass punctuating the melody while electronic noise swamps the airwaves.
Turn On (Duophonic LP, 1997)
Stereolab had always seemed open to collaborating, but in 1997 their extracurricular activites really took off, with Sadier and Hansen appearing with Mouse On Mars, drummer and electronics whiz Andy Ramsay becoming an ancillary member of High Llamas for their Cold And Bouncy album sessions, Ramsay and Simon Holliday joined by Hansen and Sonic Boom (Spacemen 3, Spectrum, EAR) on the Splitting The Atom 7”, and the group working on their Uilab EP with post-rock trio Ui. Their fluid constitution allowed for such exploration, as if to suggest Stereolab as a home for all kinds of experimental impulses.
Perhaps the most intriguing of these projects, though, was Turn On, which teamed Gane and Ramsay with sometime Stereolab member Sean O’Hagan. On their self-titled mini-album, they sound like kids let loose in a rusted-out electronics studio; drum machines patter and collide, dirtied funk rhythms emerge from a primordial pool of bubbling electronica, and witchy melodies wind their way around chord changes that are pure Piccioni. Sadier’s guest appearance on ‘Ru Tenone’ is the highlight, her bubblegum chorus fitting the playful vibe perfectly.
‘Off On’ (Duophonic 12”, 1997)
Often the B-sides on Stereolab singles best the lead track, or at the very least, suggest other ways the group’s music might be moving forward. Appearing on the Miss Modular EP, a satellite from 1997’s Dots And Loops, ‘Off On’ lifts its name from one of Scott Bartlett’s pioneering experimental films, and its electronics from Mouse On Mars: the song was recorded at the German duo’s studio, and features Jan St. Werner as a member of the extended line-up.
His insectile, miniature electronics slot beautifully into the Stereolab group-mind, a set of flickering neon lights patterning in and out of phase while the group lays down one of their most instigative funk rhythms. ‘Off On’ is an all-time Stereolab classic.
Dots And Loops (Duophonic LP, 1997)
Dots And Loops saw Stereolab diving deeper into the peculiar alchemy of their Chicago collaborations – two-thirds of the album was recorded with McEntire at Soma Recording Studio. For the remainder, they decamped to Düsseldorf and Academy Of St Martin In The Streets to work with Mouse On Mars. If any record sums up the international exchange that was going on at the time, with The High Llamas, Mouse On Mars, Tortoise, The Sea & Cake, Gastr Del Sol and Oval all sharing aesthetic and creative territory, it’s Dots And Loops.
It’s an album that divides fans, though, with some finding it has too much surface sheen, too much stylisation. You can kind of see their point, but I’d prefer to read this as Stereolab finding a new degree of poise and confidence. Certainly, the process of recording risked mechanisation – the group would record base material, and their playing would then be looped. This was the first time Stereolab had recorded to hard disk, and while Gane and producer McEntire found it a fascinating approach, Gane would later reflect to Tape Op that he “didn’t want to do it that way again. To me, an LP can suffer from too much looping or artificial playing.”
That may be the case, but from the Busby Berkeley pop of ‘The Flower Called Nowhere’ to the four-part, elegiac driftwork of ‘Refractions In The Plastic Pulse’, through entanglements with jungle on ‘Parsec’ and slippery funk moves on ‘Ticker-tape Of The Unconscious’, this time they got the balance just right. Extra points, too, for an album heavy with experimental film references, from the Kenneth Anger quip of “flower called nowhere” to the references to Norman McLaren’s Dots and Loops films in the title, and naming the opening song after American underground film pioneer Stan Brakhage.
Stereolab/Nurse With Wound
Simple Headphone Mind (Duophonic 12”, 1997)
Heading back to the Nurse With Wound laboratory for another duel, and this time the two parties appear to be on more even footing, though that may simply be because the material Stereolab gave Steven Stapleton is drone-on krautrock at its finest. Here, Stapleton stretches moments into eternities, allowing the motorik clip of the song’s pulse and the psychedelic reels of guitar full flourish as he pulls them into all kinds of untoward shapes.
Stretching across half an hour, it’s the more successful of their two ‘collaborative’ records, as though they’ve learned each other’s tics and can play to the collective advantage. Another krautrock quip in the title, too, with ‘Simple Headphone Mind’ the opening cut on Alcatraz’s 1972 album Vampire State Building, recorded at Faust’s Wümme Studio.
‘One Wild Moment’ (Domino 12”, 1998)
The Pastels played on bills with Stereolab a number of times in the ‘90s, and both Gane and Sadier contributed to the Pamfletti zine, along with The Pastels and Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne, in late 1993. It made perfect sense when Stereolab turned up on Illuminati, the remix album that The Pastels and friends abstracted out of their 1997 classic, Illumination.
‘One Wild Moment’ was chosen as the lead single, and with good reason – it’s Tim Gane squeezing joyous pop out of The Pastels’ (still unreleased) original, stringing melody across the song like stuttering fairy lights, before a melancholy breakdown for flute and chintzy guitar gives a moment’s pause, everything revving up again for the final countdown. A future dancefloor belter.
Stereolab & Brigitte Fontaine
‘Caliméro’ (Duophonic 7”, 1998)
The Gallic surrealism of Brigitte Fontaine’s ‘70s albums, written and recorded mostly in conjunction with Areski, felt like perfect precursors to the Stereolab project, so it makes sense that the group would eventually collaborate with the legend. Fontaine was on another of her winning streaks around this time, also recording with Sonic Youth, but ‘Caliméro’ was the strongest of her performances from this stage, particularly for the effortless way she navigates Gane’s modular songwriting, while O’Hagan’s brass arrangements punctuate her droll, slurred delivery perfectly. The B-side to this limited single was an early appearance of Sadier’s solo project, Monade, more of which later.
Cobra & Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night (Duophonic LP, 1999)
Cobra & Phases Group felt like a divisive record at the time of release – the NME gave it 0/10 back in 1999 – and there’s always been something slightly excessive about it, though in retrospect it’s more to do with it’s sheer surfeit of ideas than any grand statement. Certainly, it’s an album that resists any thematic consistency, and is the closest Stereolab have come to record-as-research-dossier: it traverses so many avenues. This may also be due to the company they were keeping – for Cobra & Phases Group, the production is shared between McEntire and Jim O’Rourke.
The great lie that sits uneasily at the heart of critical discourse about Stereolab is their perceived ‘emotionlessness’, of a focus on form over content, and the irony of Cobra & Phases Group is that it contains some of Laetitia’s most disarming, personal lyrics. ‘People Do It All The Time’ is a joyous reflection on childbirth and parenting, Sadier singing to her son as the group raises the skies with their music. Elsewhere, the group make some of their most audacious leaps, from the loose-limbed jazz freak-out of ‘Fuses’ to the bipartite psychedelia of ‘Italian Shoes Continuum’. But the key to Cobra & Phases Group is the sidelong ‘Blue Milk’, a sugared one-chord monolith that works through so many stages it contains an entire album within itself.
‘Long Life Love’ from Captain Easychord (Duophonic 12”, 2001)
Mary Hansen had taken the lead on a few Stereolab songs already, most notably ‘Puncture In The Radax Permutation’ from Cobra & Phases Group, but ‘Long Life Love’ is her finest vocal on record – no mean feat with a song as melodically challenging as this one, with its continued ascensions into the higher register which give the song its unmistakable uplift.
The real thrill in ‘Long Life Love’, though, is the ease with which the group twist and cut between its constituent parts – as if the modular approach to song writing that Gane was developing needed to be taken to the next level. The joy is in the juxtaposition, treating song material as matter for the cut-up.
Sound-Dust (Duophonic LP, 2001)
It’s not a popular position, but I’ll say it anyway: Sound-Dust is Stereolab’s finest album, the one where everything fell into place, where the conceptual apparatus locked perfectly onto the melodies, rhythms and arrangements, where Sadier’s lyrics took a quantum leap, where the group reached full flower. Some of the power of the album is down to Gane’s modus operandi, as he told Jon Casimir: “I started with the idea of using very static rhythms. Then it grew into having more of a polyphony, having two fast static rhythms, recorded separately, coming out of either speaker. Then the question was how the content would go with that idea. I decided the music should be very still, like a pool or a puddle. The album began to become quite impressionistic because of that. I wanted instruments like celeste and harpsichord, fewer electronic sounds, more acoustic instruments, to blur the edges.”
But it’s also a deeply seductive record, even at its most troubled, unsettled passes – the production is rich but distinct and clear, and the melodies, inspired by Krzysztof Komeda’s soundtrack work, flow gorgeously, an unending stream of song. Indeed, the re-focusing on acoustic instruments has Sound-Dust sounding, at times, like a chamber pop experiment. The use of instruments like clavinet, celeste and electric harpsichord (all played with rare sensitivity by Sean O’Hagan), which cleave to the more percussive end of the keyboard spectrum, interlock beautifully with crotales, marimba and glockenspiel, giving the album a rich, pointillist top end; a starlit environment hovers above the album.
The songs are among Gane’s most beautiful: the leap from tension to sunburst joy in ‘Space Moth’ is exhilarating; ‘Gus The Mynah Bird’’s opening tone-float takes the group’s fascination with American minimalism to new levels; the closing ‘Suggestion Diabolique’ and ‘Les Bons Bons De Raisons are the darkest Stereolab would get. Really, Sound-Dust has the richest emotional palette of any of the group’s albums. It’s their masterpiece.
Socialisme Ou Barbarie (The Bedroom Recordings) (Duophonic LP, 2003)
As the album’s sub-title indicates, these are home recordings, Sadier’s first full-length step outside of the Stereolab cocoon. The alias she chose for her project, Monade, puns on Stereolab to a degree, but taken with the title of the album, Socialisme Ou Barbarie, they signal her ongoing interest in Greek-French political philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis. (‘Anonymous Collective’, from Emperor Tomato Ketchup, was another reference.) Socialisme Ou Barbarie was a journal Castoriadis edited for a number of years; “monade” comes from his explorations of psychoanalytic theory, referring to the presocialised “monade psychique”.
So there are through-lines here that connect back to Stereolab, but too many critics made too much of any sonic similarities. Sadier’s voice is an obvious one, but that’s where it ends. In Stereolab, Gane writes the songs and melodies, but with Monade, Sadier has free play, and her approach to songwriting is quite distinct: fragile, quietly joyful songs which pass through melancholy but refuse its aggressions. ‘Witch Hazel’, for example, has a beautiful melody that hangs in the air, Sadier’s gorgeous guitar strumming oscillating between a clutch of chords. ‘Vol De Jour’ fleshes out this approach, with clanking parts for percussion easing the song into an uncertain sashay.
The Free Design
‘Harve Daley Hix (Stereolab & The High Llamas Mix)’ from Redesigned Vol. 2 (Light In The Attic 12”, 2004)
Stereolab named a song after The Free Design, so it’s not exactly a surprise they ended up remixing the sunshine pop outfit, too. As with the best of Gane’s remixes, ‘Harve Daley Hix’ pays respect to the internal machinations of the original songs while also pushing at the boundaries of the possible.
The end result here, undertaken in collaboration with long-time associate Sean O’Hagan of The High Llamas, re-images The Free Design as underwater arcana, or singing out from inside electrified flora, the wiring of patchbays emitting electronic hisses and spurts while The Free Design fight through the undergrowth.
Margerine Eclipse (Duophonic LP, 2004)
In the time between Sound-Dust and Margerine Eclipse, Stereolab lost key member Mary Hansen, who died in a cycling accident in 2002. Gane and Sadier’s romantic relationship had also ended. Given this double blow, Margerine Eclipse could not be anything but a eulogy, particularly to the passing of Hansen. What is so remarkable is the hope that suffuses the record, even at its darkest passes.
Sadier’s personal politics have always been deeply human, despite the desire for many to frame them as Marxism by numbers, and here she also shows great capacity for channelling the direct, emotional speech of the heart into song: ‘Feel and Triple’ traces the steps of Sadier and Hansen’s friendship with devastating honesty (“It took years to intimate / But finally love found a way / Unimpeded it could exist / So fun, so free”) while singing out a gorgeous remembrance of a singular individual.
‘…Sudden Stars’ also addresses loss with acute, direct poetry, hymning the history of the group via the song’s tripartite structure, which Gane has mentioned was meant as a kind of summary of the main phases of the group’s musical aesthetic so far. On other songs, Gane pushes the album’s structuring device – ‘dual mono’, which basically means there are two albums playing out in consort, each hard-panned to left or right – adding a new complexity into his songwriting while allowing Sadier to layer vocals in more intimate and entwining ways; another form of remembrance.
An album of mourning, Margerine Eclipse refuses to betray the complexity of the past through trite gestures, and its emotional colouration does rare honour to the history of the group, and to the losses they have survived.
‘Rose, My Rocket Brain!’ (Duophonic 7”, 2004)
Released for the Margerine Eclipse tour, ‘Rose, My Rocket Brain!’ has Sadier back on fighting form, her lyrics a denunciation of modern-day masters of war: “The stance and demands must be clear / Backing the Iraqi people against military action / The fate of Iraq will not be in the hands of the Iraqis”. Later in the title song, she turns her eyes to the ineffective critical voice of western protest: “The peace movement should radically challenge the idea that the western powers have the right to determine the affairs of the world / Yet the anti-war movement today passively takes on the view of the west”. It’s strong stuff, delivered in one of her most plain-speaking vocal performances yet, while the group play through another one of Gane’s more intricate, modular constructions.
Next, ‘University Microfilms International’ skips with giddy glee while Sadier criticises the social disconnect of the neoliberal self: “I don’t need to engage the world politically, my lawyer will do it for me”. Really, this is Sadier’s record, and it’s great to hear the way her political writing has shifted from its grounding in a Marxist/socialist vision to a more direct address.
‘Kybernetická Babička’ (Too Pure 7”, 2005)
After Margerine Eclipse, Stereolab seemed to lose their way a little. They were as productive as ever, releasing six 7″ singles, in two tranches of three each, across 2005 and 2006 (later collected on 2006’s Fab Four Suture). But something in the songs didn’t quite add up, for the most part – they were enjoyable, but didn’t quite have the spark of great Stereolab.
One of the exceptions was ‘Kybernetická Babička’, which took Gane’s interest in looping and layered structures to a hypnotic, almost maddening extreme. Across two sides of the 7″, a knock-kneed glam stomp unfolds, glistening with keyboard drones, Sadier sighing wordlessly across the song’s slippery surfaces. It’s great fun, kinda hilarious, and after a few listens, highly addictive.
‘Mudra (Stereolab Mix)’ from Dimension Mix (Eeenie Meenie CD, 2005)
Some of the most exciting Stereolab from this era appeared on compilations, as remixes, or as one-off explorations. ‘Mudra’ is a staggering retake of Bruce Haack – in some ways it’s a weird cousin to the aforementioned ‘Kybernetická Babička’, but instead of staying doggedly on the one track, here Gane and company explore the wild terrain suggested by Haack’s uncommon electronics from a frantic, wide-eyed opening volley, Ramsay drumming like his life depends on it, through to a blissed-out middle section (shades of ‘Space Moment’ from Amorphous Body Study Center), into a faltering outro that sends light flying around the room like a spinning top in profile.
‘Explosante Fixe’ (Duophonic 7”, 2008)
A tour single for Chemical Chords, ‘Explosante Fixe’ is one of their strongest songs from this, the final phase of Stereolab, which makes it all the more surprising it didn’t appear on the album itself, or its ‘sequel’, 2010’s Not Music. If Chemical Chords itself risks an overly cloying sweetness at times, ‘Explosante Fixe’ has just the right amount of underlying melancholy in Sadier’s delivery of the chorus.
There are so many distinct parts feeding into the song, yet it’s knitted together so that there’s a great clarity at the heart of ‘Explosante Fixe’. Gane’s fascination with miniaturized loops meant that a lot of the songs from this era tick away with a surplus of nervous energy, and ‘Explosante Fixe’ is self-assured, its momentary references to classic film music tropes swept along in the joy of the moment, as all kinds of details are etched into foreground, mid and background all at once. Busy, but wise with it.
Chemical Chords (4AD LP, 2008) / Not Music (Drag City LP, 2010)
The Fab Four Suture songs may have felt uncertain, but with Chemical Chords the game is back on. Stereolab have rarely been this carefree, or sounded so crisp and clear. Gane’s approach to songwriting here is all about brevity and the vertical. As he told Wired, “I’ve been thinking in terms of ‘shortness’ more as a kind of density – a lot going on, kind of a hierarchy of things, but dense, going up – up towards the sky, as opposed to flat across the ground.”
As with all Stereolab albums at this point, Chemical Chords is a web of allusion and illusion. Gane told Wired that he’d found the album title in a cookbook, but the title track’s pulsing, juddering chords also echo the structure of Oronzo De Filippi’s ‘Chimica Industriale’ from his library music classic Meccanizzazione.
From there, Gane undertook a process he likened to excavation: “I cut a very, very tiny loop/sample, and I just glue them together so there’s maybe eight of them in a row, and that’s maybe lasting about a second, or a second and a half. The kind of blurred sound gives it something you can’t really precisely put your finger on, it’s a strange kind of loop. And then I pitch-shift them up and down to make a chord. And then all we do with the band, is we just listen really closely to what we can hear,
and try to reproduce it. I liken it a little bit to a sort of pop-art thing, where you’re recreating a commercial product, but in a painterly way.”
Chemical Chords certainly has the excitement of pop art – it’s all vivid colours, saturation and contrast. The strongest songs are those that expand from this remit, though, like the tonal uncertainty of the title cut, or the sugar-rush bounce of ‘Daisy Click-Clack’. ‘Silver Sands’ is a bountiful embrace of pop classicism, with Sadier’s lyrics reflecting on a relationship with the natural world. For her part, Sadier found the production of Chemical Chords frustrating, as she told the Village Voice, saying, “there’s very little air and ba-donk, ba-donk, ba-donk all the way through practically.”
For Not Music, the group returned to the prodigious Chemical Chords sessions, selecting another batch of songs – the “dark side”, as Sadier puts it. There’s certainly something in that: the songs on Not Music take pause more frequently, admit to more complex emotional colouration. One wonders how potent the two albums would have been released as a double album, with both sides of the coin represented. Perhaps that would have been overkill. Yet Stereolab have always worked well with these contrasts – the dark and the light, the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.
Listen next: Tim Gane’s FACT mix