Stereolab are a French/English rock groop who played what might best be described as either "avant-garde M.O.R." or "space age bachelor pad music". They formed in 1990 from the ashes of the politically astute Jangle Pop band McCarthy and were among the first wave of Post-Rock musicians, mixing Krautrock and "motorik" rhythms, pointillist fuzzed-out guitar melodies, vintage synthesizers, and lounge-pop influences. Said lounge-pop grew in influence over the years until, by 1997's Dots and Loops, they were basically playing pop music—albeit, pop music from an alternate universe where Raygun Gothic never went out of fashion, where Burt Bacharach and The Free Design are revered as musical gods, and where 11 minutes is a perfectly acceptable song length.
Tim Gane (guitar and keys) and Lætitia Sadier (lead vocals, guitar, and keys) were the only consistent members of the groop. Mary Hansen (harmony vocals, guitar, and keys), who joined in 1992 and died in 2002, and Andy Ramsay (drums), who joined in 1993, were also key personnel during their tenure.
They went on an indefinite hiatus in 2009, but returned to play a series of live dates for 2019-2021. They also re-released a chunk of their old discography: deluxe editions of their albums from Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements through Margarine Eclipse, and a Boxed Set of their Switched On compilations—then put out a new entry in the Switched On compilation series.
- Peng! (1992)
- Switched On (1992) Collection of their first 3 EP's.
- The Groop Played Space Age Batchelor Pad Music (1993)
- Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements (1993)
- Mars Audiac Quintet (1994)
- Refried Ectoplasm: Switched On, Vol. 2 (1995) Collection of singles and rarities.
- Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996)
- Dots and Loops (1997)
- Aluminum Tunes: Switched On, Vol. 3 (1998) Collection of EP tracks, singles, and rarities.
- Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night (1999)
- Sound-Dust (2001)
- ABC Music: The Radio 1 Sessions (2002) Collection of live recordings.
- Margerine Eclipse (2004)
- Oscillons from the Anti-Sun (2005) Collection of EP tracks and previously-unreleased material.
- Fab Four Suture (2006) An odd release that splits the difference between a traditional album and a compilation. note
- Serene Velocity: A Stereolab Anthology (2006) Greatest Hits Album, focusing on the material they released on the Elektra label.
- Chemical Chords (2008)
- Not Music (2010)
- Electrically Possessed: Switched On, Vol. 4 (2021) Collection of EP tracks, singles, rarities and unreleased material.
The groop provides examples of:
- Ac CENT Uponthe Wrong Syl LA Ble: Very often. Mostly comes from Lætitia Sadier not being a native English speaker.
- After the End: "One Small Step".
- Author Tract: The majority of their lyrics push a Marxist / Situationist worldview. Some are more subtle about it than others. It doesn't help that the two main members of the band from time to time give conflicting statements about this, as reported by The Other Wiki:Lætitia Sadier: "Basically I want to change the world. I want to make people think about how they live every day, shake them a bit."Tim Gane: "[N]one of us are Marxists ... I've never even read Marx."
- Bilingual Bonus: "Pause" incorporates a bit of found sound, "an eerie childlike robotic voice" speaking in German that Tim Gane taped off his home radio. For years, he thought it was a spy code broadcast, but in 2019 an actual German speaker told him it was really the East German fishing forecast for the North Sea.
- Bookends: Fab Four Suture opens with "Kyberneticka Babicka Pt 1." and ends with "Kyberneticka Babicka Pt 2." Both songs are trancelike variations on the same melody.
- Bowdlerise: The album version of "Jenny Ondioline" features a line in the chorus, "I don't care that democracy's being fucked"—although it's easy to miss, because the vocals are so low in the mix. The music video uses an alternate mix with the vocals slightly clearer, and that particular line has been edited so Sadier now sings "sucked" instead of "fucked".
- Bread and Circuses: A few tracks from Dots and Loops seem to be about Spectacle, the Marxist concept that escapist media merely exist to keep the masses from questioning the status quo.This is the future, of an illusion,
aggressive culture, of despotism.
Living fantasy, of an immortal;
the reality, of an animal.— "Contronatura"
- They also have a song actually called "Pain et spectacles".
- Concept Album: Chemical Chords and Not Music are conceptually linked, but it's more of a musical concept rather than a lyrical one. Gane and Sadier generated chord sequences at random, then built songs off of them. They took the catchier songs from these sessions and released them as Chemical Chords. Then they took the weirder songs (plus a few remixes) and released those as Not Music.
- Epic Rocking: With the exception of Chemical Chords, every album has at least one track longer than 6 minutes. Particular standouts include "Jenny Ondioline" (18 minutes), "Refractions in the Plastic Pulse" (17 minutes) and the extended version of "Blue Milk" (17 minutes)note .
- Everything Sounds Sexier in French: Lætitia Sadier and Morgane Lhote are from France, and thus the band has a lot of songs entirely in the French language.
- Finger Firearms: Cover art on their early releases John Cage Bubblegum, Switched On, and Refried Ectoplasm feature a cartoon man (named "Cliff") pointing his finger-gun straight at the viewer. And on the cover of Peng!, Cliff is actually shooting.
- Fish-Eye Lens: The cover art of Mars Audiac Quintet and its associated singles consisted of a fish-eye photo of a synthesizer.
- Gratuitous Panning: Used deliberately, and to unusual effect.
- In "Analogue Rock", from Transient Random Noise Bursts, the organ is panned hard to the left channel, and the guitars, drums, and most vocals are panned hard to the right. They abruptly swap places, briefly, during the second verse.
- The EP Instant 0 in the Universe and the album Margarine Eclipse are both mixed in "dual mono", meaning every instrument is panned hard to one side or the other. Muting either channel results in the songs sounding radically different.
- Hourglass Plot: Boiled down to just a few lines in "Tomorrow Is Already Here".Originally this setup,
was to serve society.
Now, the roles
have been reversed.
They want society to serve the institutions.
- Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: In the early days, they had a fondness for naming songs after electronic and other keyboard instruments: "Farfisa", "Harmonium", "Mellotron", "Jenny Ondioline", "Narco Martenot", "Motoroller Scalotron", and so on.
- Indecipherable Lyrics: In the first half of "Golden Ball", the vocal track is so distorted, it's nearly impossible to make out any words.
- Inherited Illiteracy Title: The Groop Played Space Age Batchelor Pad Music. (Oddly enough, "Bachelor" was only misspelled on the front cover—the album spine and back cover spells it correctly.) Which also featured the song "The Groop Played Chord X" and inspired future album liner notes (and many a reviewer) to refer to the band as "the groop".
- Longest Song Goes Last:
- Peng! closes with "Surrealchemist" (7:13).
- Margerine Eclipse ends with "Dear Marge" (6:56).
- Long Title: They have a few, including the album titles The Groop Played Space Age Batchelor Pad Music, Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements, and Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night.
- Lyrical Dissonance: "Ping-Pong", an upbeat ditty about a cycle of global economic depression, war, and all-too-brief economic recovery.
- Minimalistic Cover Art:
- Many of the groop's earlier releases (including Peng! and John Cage Bubblegum) only consisted of a cartoon character named Cliff placed against a plain coloured background.
- The album covers for Dots and Loops and Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night.
- Multilingual Song: Most of their tunes are either completely in English or completely in French, but there are a few songs that feature both languages about equally, like "Lock-Groove Lullaby" and "Prisoner of Mars".
- Never Trust a Title:
- Stunning Debut Album. Neither a debut nor an album.note
- Not Music has much more music than the title implies.
- New Sound Album:
- Mars Audiac Quintet was where their interest in lounge and exotica really started to come into play in a big way.
- Emperor Tomato Ketchup saw the electronic elements become more prominent, creating songs round loops rather than guitar riffs and primarily taking inspiration from krautrock, bossa nova, and most 1960's music.
- Dots and Loops was essentially a mixture of drum'n'bass, jazz and electronica.
- Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night had more of a jazz defined edge in comparison to Dots and Loops.
- Sound-Dust had more of a Chamber Pop sound than prior efforts.
- Margerine Eclipse is the band's first album after the death of Mary Hansen, which is apparent in the noticeable absence of her harmony and counter-melody backing vocals which had been a signature element of the band's sound for most her time with the band.
- Non-Appearing Title: The vast majority of their songs.
- The Not-Remix: The 2019 reissued albums were all remastered by Bo Kondren, with Tim Gane's assistance. Both of them aimed for a mastering style that (in Gane's words) "tries to preserve the inner musicality of the audio" while "improv[ing] a little on the resolution, spaciality, and depth."
- Retraux: Their music aims for the audio equivalent of Raygun Gothic.
- Their album Mars Audiac Quintet is basically the Neu! sound with variations.
- Self-Backing Vocalist: On the albums without Mary Hansen, Lætitia Sadier recorded multiple vocal tracks and harmonized with herself.
- Self-Plagiarism: "Dear Marge" rather blatantly reuses the disco groove from "Mass Riff", released just one year prior.
- Several references to the label Vanguard Records. The groop took their name from the Vanguard Stereolab album series. The cover of The Groop Played Space Age Batchelor Pad Music recycled a design that Vanguard Stereolab used for several of their demonstration records, such as this release of Haydn's Royal Fireworks Music and Water Music, this recording of Dvorak's New World Symphony, and this hi-fi test record. On the vinyl issue of The Groop Played... the back cover and side B disc label even feature Vanguard's logo of a knight on horseback.
- Similarly, the entire album design for Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements was lifted from a stereo test record put out by the Hi-Fi Sound magazine.
- The track "International Colouring Contest" from Mars Audiac Quintet serves as a tribute to the late outsider artist Lucia Pamela.
- Emperor Tomato Ketchup is named after the English translation of a controversial Japanese film, whilst its' album artwork is derived from a Béla Bartók record from the 1960s.
- Dots and Loops was named for two films by Norman McLaren, Dots and Loops. The opening song "Brakhage" was named for filmmaker Stan Brakhage.note "Rainbo Conversation" was named after the Rainbo, a bar in Chicago where some of the members of Tortoise worked, and which Stereolab visited while they were recording Dots and Loops.
- Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night is partly named after CoBrA, a short-lived avant-garde movement. From the same album, "The Free Design" is a tribute to the band of the same name.
- On Sound-Dust, the skull-castle and ocean waves on the cover art came from Polish designer Andrezej Onegin Dabrowski's poster for the film Cul-de-sac (1966). All the lyrics from "Nothing to Do with Me" contain lines taken from the dark comedy sketch show Jam.
- The artwork of Kyberneticka Babicka is explicitly a reference to the Pink Floyd album The Dark Side of the Moon.
- Silly Rabbit, Cynicism Is for Losers!: "The Noise of Carpet" says that cynicism is just another tool that The Man uses to keep us down.I hate to see your broken face,
a lazy life of fatal waste,
of fashionable cynicism,
the poison they want you to drink.
Oh no, man, that's too easy,
oh no, man, that's so easy.
- Song Style Shift:
- "Jenny Ondioline" is mostly a shoegaze/krautrock fusion—then it goes "out of phase" and turns into noise pop, before turning back into krautrock for the ending.
- "Refractions in the Plastic Pulse" starts off as a slow jazz/pop/samba thing; then turns into space rock with strings; then turns into something that sounds like trip-hop; then into a glitchy electronic tune; and finally back into space rock with strings for the ending.
- "Contronatura" starts off slow but tense, then fades to an ambient electronic interlude, then ends as a driving krautrock tune.
- "Space Moth" starts off slow and sinister, then changes to a faster beat for the verses, and then transitions to an upbeat ending with triumphant saxophones.
- "Captain Easychord" starts off bright, trading off between brass arrangements and pedal steel guitar—then the second half turns into moody synthpop.
- "Mass Riff" starts off as poppy krautrock, then switches on a dime into a disco groove. Similarly, "Dear Marge" begins as elegiac synth-rock, then turns into a lullaby, then crossfades into a slight variation on the disco portion of "Mass Riff".
- Theme Naming: Several of their songs are named after early electronic instruments (i.e. Mellotron, Jenny Ondioline, Motoroller Scalatron) or obscure bands (The Free Design, Les Yper Sound).
- Vocal Tag Team: From '92 to '02, Lætitia Sadier and Mary Hansen's sing-song harmonies were one of the defining features of the Stereolab sound.