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Music / Stereolab

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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 2019-2022. They also re-released a chunk of their old discography: deluxe editions of their albums from Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements through Margerine Eclipse, and a Boxed Set of their Switched On compilations—then put out two new entries in the Switched On compilation series.

    Albums and Compilations 
For a comprehensive discography, see their website.

  • 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 from 1993 up to 1995.
  • Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996)
  • Dots and Loops (1997)
    • Aluminum Tunes: Switched On, Vol. 3 (1998) Collection of EP tracks, singles, and rarities from 1995 up to 1998.
  • 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 from 1999-2008.
    • Pulse of the Early Brain: Switched On, Vol. 5 (scheduled for Sept 2022) Collection of EP tracks, singles, rarities and unreleased material from each stage of their career.

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.
  • Boléro Effect: A lot of their earlier, dronier tracks like "Stomach Worm" and "Golden Ball" make prominent use of this.
  • Book Ends: 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.
  • Gainax Ending: The bittersweet post-rock/dream pop of "Lock-Groove Lullaby", and by extension Transient Random Noise Bursts, ends with a sudden cut to a sample of Perrey and Kingsley's "The Savers" and a deep, distorted groaning sound in its last 30 seconds. "I'm Going Out of my Way" ends similarly on a sample of Perry and Kingsley's "One Note Samba / Spanish Flea".
  • 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.
    • Margerine Eclipse, and its associated EPs Instant 0 in the Universe and Rose, My Rocket-Brain!, are all 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.
  • Heävy Mëtal Ümlaut: Weirdly enough, they were credited as Stêréölåb on an obscure 7" flexidisc, which was distributed with the Spacewatch music zine. (This was a split release with fellow indie rockers Submariner, who similarly became "Submårinér" for this 7", so the superfluous accents were most likely Spacewatch's doing.)
  • 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".
  • In-Series Nickname: Album liner notes often referred to the band as "the groop". In interviews, Gane and Sadier would also sometimes call it "the Lab".
  • Limited Lyrics Song: Stereolab are quite fond of this, and many tracks from Transient Random Noise Bursts with Announcements and Emperor Tomato Ketchup lean into it heavily. For example, "Crest" features only 3 lines repeated throughout its 6-minute runtime;
    If there's been a way to build it
    There'll be a way to destroy it
    Things are not all that out of control
  • Longest Song Goes Last:
    • Peng! closes with "Surrealchemist" (7:13).
    • Margerine Eclipse ends with "Dear Marge" (6:56).
  • 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", "Prisoner of Mars", and "Captain Easychord".
  • 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." (Although some of them wound up being significant Re Cuts as well.)
  • Portmantitle: "Delugeoisie", combining "deluge" (most likely in reference to a phrase attributed to King Louis XV of France) with "bourgeoisie".
  • Re-Cut:
    • From the beginning, there were two versions of Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night. The 1999 LP issue on Duophonic Discs featured the full, 17 minute version of "Blue Milk"—while the CD version edited the track down to 11 minutes, since the full song would have made the album too long to fit on a single CD. For some reason, every subsequent LP reissue also used the CD version of the album. That is, until 2019, when they used the original LP version (with the full length "Blue Milk") as the basis for the remastered rerelease, both on LP and CD. (The extended length makes Cobra and Phases Group the only album in the remaster series that's split across two CDs.)
    • Similarly, the original CD version of Sound-Dust used an edited version of "Gus the Mynah Bird" (lasting 6:11), while the LP version had the full song (which runs for 9:05), with a longer, percussion-focused intro. For the 2019 remaster, both the CD and LP use the unedited version.
    • On the original release of Margerine Eclipse, they edited out the ambient section in the middle of "Hillbilly Motobike" (shortening the song to 2:53). That cut portion was included as a standalone bonus track, "La Spirale", on the Japanese release. For the 2019 remaster, they used the unedited full version of "Hillbilly Motobike" (with "La Spirale" in its place in the middle), lengthening the song to 4:52.
  • 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.
  • Sequel Escalation: If you look at their compilation albums. Switched On had 10 tracks. Refried Ectoplasm had 13 tracks. Aluminum Tunes had 25 tracks, and had to be split across two CDs. Oscillons from the Anti-Sun had 35 tracks split across three CDs, plus a DVD with 11 music videos. Fab Four Suture finally reined in the rampant growth, and just had 12 tracks. Then Electrically Possessed had 25 tracks split across 2 CDs.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Switched On was named in reference to the album Switched-On Bach.
    • 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, and the Phases Group, another group of surrealists. From the same album, "Blips, Drips & Strips" and "Op Hop Detonation" are both named in reference to experimental films Tim Gane read about in Amos Vogel's book Film as a Subversive Art. "The Free Design" was an accidental shout-out: the title was just a reference to the song's lyrics, but the groop were aware of the band of the same name and appreciated the coincidence—and also, at the end of the song, the horns interpolate "Dancing Queen".
    • 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".
  • Spoken Word in Music: "Enivrez-Vous" and "OLV 26" both feature prominent spoken word parts in French.
  • 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.