If one were forced — at plastic-butter-knife-point, say — to describe Stereolab’s entire nine-year history of musical exploration, a single word might rise from the crisis: organic.
Not organic as in tofu, but in the sense of something vital, something alive. An odd description, maybe, given that Stereolab’s sound is most often classed with European techno-pop and acid jazz — but there’s really no other word to describe the band’s nearly decade-long musical evolution.
It simply grows.
During the early phase (circa 1991), Stereolab’s stuff sounded very much like that of the German band Kraftwerk, replete with synthesizers, abstract buzzing sounds and strange, haunting, droning lyrics. Not exactly radio-ready, in other words. But with each successive album, Stereolab added another layer to its sound: A little Brian Wilson-styled transition here, a few jazz-horn-arrangements-right-out-of-the-atonal-works-of-Miles Davis there, and by the time 1996’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Elektra) was released, the London-based group had metamorphosed into a stand-alone band with a stand-alone sound.
But still, the band pushed forward, growing and improving — and, eventually, earning a reputation as one of the major forces in contemporary avant-garde pop. Around 1994, Stereolab briefly gained the American spotlight, touring on the Lollapalooza circuit and working closely (read: partying hard) with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Last year’s Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night (Elektra) took the group in a lounge-crossed-with-acid-jazz direction, yielding a kind of groovy Muzak.
At first listen, it might seem that the group had abandoned its particular kind of musical eccentricity to embrace a more accessible sound. Not so: It’s more like the vibe expanded so much that, like an organism, it evolved into a new creature altogether — still recognizable, but a quantum leap from what it had been, and now deep in the unknown waters of its own uniqueness. This growth spurt is further in evidence in the group’s most recent release, The First of the Microbe Hunters (Elektra, 2000) — perhaps the most representative of all Stereolab’s albums.
Band members admit that they produce their music as an experiment, as much as anything else. This constant re-creating of the Stereolab monster has led to a prolific outpouring of albums — both on the band’s own label, Duophonic, and on Elektra — with limited-release sets and very collectable foreign-release-only singles driving fans mad for more. (The band’s U.S. following is relatively small, with larger — but no more loyal — holdings all over Europe, and as far away as Japan.)
So, how goes Stereolab in the new millennium? Try ’60s-French-pop/’70s-TV-commercial-tunes/what-if-Muzak-was-REALLY-good?/a-whole-lot-of-the-Moog-Synthesizer-Opus-III/funky-acid-jazz-but-mellow, for starters. Blazingly original in the way it mixes several seemingly unconnectable types of music into a focused outcome, the group nevertheless hangs onto its early sound with its latest effort — with heavy, haunting techno and faintly audible bits of German rock folded in.
Lead singer Laetitia Sadier’s mix of French and English lyrics — backed by Mary Hansen’s echoing refrains — remains Stereolab’s most noticeable component. At first, this may seem like a reason not to go hear them (unless you speak French and are particularly fond of layered vocals), but the effect meshes so cleanly into guitarist Tim Gane’s techno-funk-raga that the foreign words become a mantra for the whole listening experience. Also present are the contributions of arranger Sean O’Hagan (of the High Llamas) and back-up musicians Andy Ramsey, Morgane Lhote and Richard Harrison. Put all this together, and you have one of the most uncommonly cool sounds you will ever hear called pop music. And, unlike many other bands that center their music around electronic arrangements and studio-mixed tracks, Stereolab rarely falls prey to that insidious ailment whose victims give uninteresting live shows.
So, if you’re already a closet Stereolab fan, quietly living out your days waiting for another limited-release album — or merely a person ready to hear one of the best bands ever to hop the Atlantic ocean — then get happy, because the band’s coming to town. Watch out, though: You just may find yourself wrestling a new addiction.