I get a certain sense of smug satisfaction when the uninitiated ask me to describe to them what Stereolab sounds like. Simply `pop’ would suffice, but it would also be lazy. As free from the necessity of lengthy or otherwise hyphenated genre checking I’d like to be, when it comes to this band I relish it. It’s not everyday after all that you get to pigeonhole music as `space age bachelor pad electro lounge pop’ and not be facetious about it. But this is Stereolab.
Throughout the early ’90s the London group’s prolific output included the best droning analog synthesizers and peppy guitar progressions since The Velvet Underground first asked Andy Warhol to slap his `peel slowly and see’ banana on their debut album. No one at the time (or since for that matter) had fully mastered such a simultaneously suave and mood elevating approach to pop music as Stereolab; time will tell if anyone is capable of surpassing it in the future (they might as well be untouchable as far as this pundit is concerned).
Emperor Tomato Ketchup marked the band’s subtle transformation from the ’60s drone revisionists of Transient Random Noise-Bursts With Announcements to fully realized fanciers of insoluble melody and the occasional edifice of massive electronic sound. Led by founding couple Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier, Stereolab’s knack for reinventing simple rhythms and refracting them through a percolating pop prism is unrivaled. Ten plus albums into their career and their material still seems increasingly relevant. Like fine wine, perhaps, destined only to get better with time.
French-born vocalist Sadier plays revolutionary siren on effervescent bubbler “Les Yper Sound,” whose sing-song chants alternate between gentle persuasion and an outright call to arms. An early indicator of what would become a poppier direction for the band on subsequent albums, the song’s flickering electronic palate in many ways nixed the hazy droners of their first few releases and helped crack the chrysalis on a new sort of butterfly. As on previous efforts Sadier’s seductive coo weaves effortlessly across the Channel and dissolves its language barriers, at one moment deadpanning English on bossa nova boogie “Spark Plug” and the next purring French amidst the California sunshine and swooning strings of “Cybele’s Reverie.”
Even though Yo La Tengo’s lo-fi finesse is felt on the organ dirge “Olv 26,” its constant bass pulsing alongside steadily humming electronics can only belong to one band. Standard (by Stereolab measure) wall of sound rocker “The Noise of Carpet” sneaks in before the albums’ somewhat more subdued second half. The slower remainder serves as an appropriate exegesis for the band; they invoke their psychedelic posturing of old even as they shed the molting skin of its conception.
I may not speak French. I’ve never been to France even, though I have it in mind to someday walk the streets of Paris in the springtime. Partly I have a restless spirit to blame for my wanderlust. I blame Stereolab for the rest. Hearing Sadier’s serenades whirl around a lilting electronic melody is like hitching a ride on a nimbus cloud to the upper reaches of the sky; these are atmospherics with true revelatory properties.