LAB REPORT

There are only so many times you can say g’day to a workplace acquaintance before you find yourself talking about music. This well known fact was supported by extensive laboratory research at the second-last university I worked for. 

One morning, queuing at the best caffeine source on campus, I struck up a conversation with a nice young bloke who worked for the Student Union. We’d had email contact over some student-related business, but had not previously chatted. Quicker than you could say “skinny cappuccino without powdered chocolate on top” we were discussing music. 

He was involved with the on-site narrow-band radio station and was interested to hear about my time with Melbourne public radio station 3PBS. The chat soon moved on to styles of music favoured by the interlocutors and I happened to mention krautrock, that silly but well-established designator of German indi non-blues rock music of the 70s. He was very interested, he said, having recently discovered Can. What were some other artists I could recommend?

Without hesitation, I extolled the virtues of Neu!, whose combination of melody and motorik had been delighting me for many years. Yes, he said, I’ve heard of them. I’ll make you a tape, I replied.

The Neu! tape went down a treat, as I knew it would. (If you are interested, I’ve written about this seminal band here). The following week, I was presented with a return cassette containing two early albums by UK/French band Stereolab. It was a new name to me, and I was probably less gracious than I should have been, yet I whacked it in the tape player a couple of nights later and gave it a whirl.

I cannot honestly say it was love at first listen. Being the insufferably opinionated cove that I am, I may well have scoffed at the blatant Neu! ripoffs and harrumphed at the lounge style female vocals, yet Stereolab’s avant-retro charms grew on me, and quickly too.

So enamoured did I become with their hypnotic electronica, organ drones, occasional experimental jabs and captivating vocals that I acquired most of their catalogue over the next decade and was quite crestfallen when they broke up. I even bought singer Lætitia Sadier’s subsequent solo record (which was actually pretty damn good).

No band breaks up forever in the modern world, so I guess it is no surprise Stereolab have reformed and toured with soul-mates Vanishing Twin (more on them very soon), while also beginning a program of re-issuing their catalogue.

Which is a lovely excuse to introduce the Stereolab album I first heard on that cassette so many years ago. It is still the one I return to most often and a definite inclusion in Vinyl Connection’s soon-to-be-released 101 More Albums You Must Hear Before You Go Deaf. 

Welcome to the realm of the quaintly named Emperor Tomato Ketchup.

The groop (the band’s favoured spelling) lay out their wares in the first track, the driving, Neu!-infused ‘Metronomic Underground’. Emphatically not German, however, are Ms Sadier’s vocals. It is the off-centre pairing of pop melodicism with rock-fuelled instrumental drive that makes Stereolab special, in a very European way. ‘The Noise of Carpet’ is almost punk in its attack, while ‘Cybele’s Reverie’ sounds like a Bacharach tune sung by a Gallic siren and played by sullen, long-haired elevator operators.

It is not all retro-plundering and sly pop-nods, though. Tim Gane has a broad palette of sounds, reclaiming the Farfisa organ and leading the 90s charge to re-popularise analogue synthesisers. ‘Tomorrow is already here’ has an overt Steve Reich influence, its cascading marimba patterns beautiful and hypnotic. Interestingly, this track (and several others) were engineered and co-produced by Tortoise main man John McEntire; there is a definite musical connection between the two outfits.

 

‘Monstre Sacre’ has a dream pop feel, except for that tinge of weirdness percolating through much Stereolab music, especially the earlier albums. Lætitia Sadier’s vocals are pure in tone but have a detached flatness in the delivery that makes them way cool but something short of sultry. It’s more ‘Come here and light my cigarette, minion’ than ‘come on baby light my fire’.

Still, if you are a space age beatnik who reads Kerouac and drinks absinthe while hanging out in the member’s lounge of your local interstellar spaceport, you’ll love this music. Analogue never sounded so futuristic.

21 comments

  1. I think the band may well have been sipping absinthe themselves when they came up with the album title and track names! (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…) Love the groovy font. Can’t identify the object on the tour poster…any hints?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s one in the photo above the poster, viewed from a different angle.

      Like

  2. You know, I said to myself, “Is that a tone arm?!”, but thought, “No, can’t be…” Should’ve trusted my instincts! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed. It’s actually a nod to one of Stereolab’s early album covers, the splendidly titled ‘Transient Random-noise Bursts with Announcements’.

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  3. It is a weird mix, isn’t it – Krautrock plus lounge. I’ve had that album on CD for years, and like it, but haven’t explored much further.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, if I was going to recommend just one, this would be it (though Ms Connection likes ‘Margarine Eclipse’ a lot). Probably a band where just a couple of titles suffices.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Love this band, Can I recommend this excellent CD compilation of singles, b sides and rarities? https://stereolab.bandcamp.com/album/oscillons-from-the-anti-sun

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oscilons is a fabulous little box. I really like the BBC sessions 2CD set as well.

      Like

  5. pinklightsabre · · Reply

    Isn’t the bass line on Metronomic a total homage to The Revolution Will Not Be Televised? Do you get that too?

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  6. Absinthe Kerouac and metronomic rhythms, no greater promise has ever been made.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The party’s at mine. BYO chaise lounge and opium pipe.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Y’know, I don’t think I ever really paid much attention to Stereolab. I’m gonna give this one a listen and see how I get on.

    Also, I can confirm that office hellos also lead to chat about music. Verified by extensive research and testing over here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the spirit, J! And great to have the research confirmed internationally.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I think I will try this one next week in the car, when alone. (As ’embodying the light’ has possibly consumed my weekly tolerance-ration this week).
    On the G’days leading to music tack, I was recently involved in an exercise at work looking at how we deal with people whem they tune out. I chose music/ collecting as a topic that my pair would deliberately have to choose to ignore at a certain point. My “F… that’ exclamation in response to suddenly being ignored when talking about busting budget to buy a certain album reclaimed attention from my pair – and everyone in the room. No cigar, or promotion I suppose.

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  9. Fabulous closing line Bruce – and I certainly prefer discussing music with work colleagues over expensive & lengthy-titled/specific coffee orders!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Coffee and music go together almost as well as wine and music. Another well researched fact, Geoff!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I always listen to “Dots and Loops” for nostalgic reasons. It may well be one of my favorite albums of all time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome Gary! That’s cool re Dots and Loops – it’s Stereolab’s ‘digital’ album and has a different feel to most others, but i like it a lot too.
      – Bruce

      Liked by 1 person

  11. […] perhaps be described as a multi-hued electronica with instrumental confetti adding colour to the Stereolab groove at the heart of the sound. First track “KRK (At Home in Strange Places)” has a sweet […]

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  12. “Soon to be released 101…”. Bruce you know I’ll fall for that sales pitch from you every time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A pitch is good, of course. But if only it generated income, CB!

      Liked by 1 person

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