ABC Music: The Radio 1 Sessions Album reviews.
Release Date: 05.08.03
Record label: Koch Records
Reconstructing a Perfect Sound That Never Was
by: matt cibula
Stereolab is one of modern music's strangest anomalies: a group that managed to combine 1960s production-line pop music and 1970s experimental Moog noodlings with the deadpan panache of 1980s new wave to form a strange little 90's band with a huge cult following and a just-as-big backlash society. Some people don't like the strange drone things, some hate the ennervated Soviet-youth-style singing of French frontwoman Laetitia Sadier, some think that the whole thing is kitschy or over or whatever. I've even heard people reserve special angry comments for their CDs' covers and titles.
Me, I like 'em. I think they're great and funny and inventive and bizarre -- and so what if they're slightly boring sometimes? So when I first heard this 2-disc collection of live BBC performances spanning ten years and one month, I wasn't shocked at how great these songs sounded live, or at how precise and studly a drummer Andy Ramsay really is, or any of that. I mean, yeah, it's all true…but we 'lab fans already knew all that.
No, what I'm shocked by is the evidence of how much Stereolab grew in these ten years. The first session on Disc One is from July 1991, and is very much just a kinda dancey tribute to the Velvet Underground and Nico; by the second session 11 months later, they've beefed up their sound by making it a whole lot tougher and funkier (Ramsay is going nuts on the drums in a way that Joe Dilworth was just never gonna do). "Laissez Faire" and "Revox" sound more like the Modern Lovers than VU, which suits the 'lab better anyway, and those repetitive backing vocals are weirder, funner, more coolly uncool.
They also start to do real songs in these sessions: "Heavy Denim" sounds like the greatest thing in the world, with call-and-response between Sadier and Mary Hansen: "We're not here to get bored / We are here to disrupt! / To disrupt! / To have the time of our lives!" I love how they nick the melody from Animotion's "Obsession" for "Wow and Flutter," which is available in two very different versions, and I love how they included "Lo Boob Oscillator," because now I can write that in a review, and I love the whole thing.
And we haven't even talked about the second disc yet. This one shows the 'lab as a confident chance-taking electro-jazz-pop groop that isn't above stretching it out. "Metronomic Underground" is ten minutes of slow funk; "Brigitte" is a Moog-blast from the future; "Les Yper Sound" has some of the dirtiest guitar/synth interplay since Prince came around; the early version of "Pinball" here titled "Heavenly Van Halen" is a sweet little piece of breezy mid-60s pop augmented by synthesizer weirdness.
Some will claim that it was Tortoise's influence that made Stereolab funky, but those people are crazy. All you need to do is to listen to "Double Rocker" and its woozy waltz-time intro to realize that Sadier and Tim Gane had their fingers in a lot of pies; this song manages to reference every other genre ever, from bossa nova (the title and vocal rhythms are both right out of the Jobim playbook) to be-bop to 70s rock, but it ends up sounding Just Like Stereolab anyway, especially in the free-jazz freakout at the end. (Okay maybe they did learn a lot from Tortoise after all.)
Look, this is not just for fans -- it's also probably the best intro for those who haven't heard these mentalists at work. After this, I'd find Dots and Loops or Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night or Peng! or something else, really anything else, everything else. You're gonna need to bring the credit card, because you're a-gonna love this group. But get this record first to break you in. Okay? 10-Jul-2003 9:20 AM