Like most Americans, I’ve never understood why the French adore Jerry Lewis, but Stereo Total’s new album Baby Ouh! has given me a hint. Baby Ouh! is fun, funny and unapologetically European. The music pings between fervent new wave, thumping techno-pop and sultry electronica sometimes all in the same song. Bandmates Françoise Cactus and Brezel Göring alternate singing in French, English, German and possibly other languages, with frequently non-sensical lyrics. This is slapstick as high art. The humor is juvenile and odd (seeing life through the eyes of a bathroom attendant forced to look at “a naked leg and a naked butt“; wanting a child just so you can call him Lucifer and see what happens) but sung so guilessly – and with catchy hooks – that you can’t help but smile. Jerry Lewis may be cloying, but he’s nothing if not sincere, and it would make sense that the existential French like their laughs pure.
Outdated international generalizations aside, this is an album you have to be the right mood for. Stereo Total are at their best on tracks like “Barbe a Papa,” “Du Bist Gut zu Vogeln” and “Illegal,” tracks where they find a groove and stick to it, letting the song develop rather than hamming it up. More often than not though, the band likes to adorn their songs with just about any sonic bauble you can find in a studio, and that’s when the results are mixed.
Baby Ouh! has 17 tracks and the album never drags. It helps that few of the songs are longer than three minutes. Cactus and Göring are probably tired of comparisons to the similarly named Stereolab, but the comparison is apt, particularly on tracks like the pulsing “Alaska.” But Stereo Total never dig quite as deep as Stereolab, and that’s probably the point. Baby Ouh! is almost consciously light. Any band writing early-90s style club tracks about drag legend Divine (“Divine’s Handbag”) just wants us all to shut up and dance.
As much Stereolab as there is in Stereo Total’s music, there’s also a lot of giddy new wave. On the faster songs, Cactus sounds a bit like Love is All’s Josephine Olausson with a heavy French accent. And in these songs, the band doesn’t so much let go of its affectations as find a better outlet for them. The synthy intro to “No Controles” kind of sounds like something out of a fight montage in an ’80s movie that would have starred Patrick Swayze, but somehow the rest of the song, with its palm mutes and defiant chorus, swoops in to save it from the cheese factor.
On the other hand, a song like “Baby Boom Ohne Mich” represents some of Stereo Total’s worst habits. The song is mostly Cactus singing the title over and over, and ends with a lot of crashing symbols and screaming. (Unfortunately I can’t speak to the clarity – or lack thereof – of the French and German lyrics. I only speak English, a little Spanish and even littler Irish Gaelic. Somehow neither of the latter were used on this album).
Stereo Total used to be a bigger band, but now its basically just Cactus and Göring slamming together the better parts of what their native France and Germany have to offer and seeing what sticks. A little Serge Gainsbourg here, the slightest trace of Can there. When it works, the results are gleefully wacky. When it doesn’t, the song is isn’t long and you’re quickly onto something else. Baby Ouh! is a record with a lot of songs, and a short memory.