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.