Stereolab Go Back to the Lab on Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Dots and Loops and Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night Expanded Editions

Stereolab continue their ambitious reissue campaign with extras-loaded editions of their pivotal late-’90s output

Music Reviews Stereolab
Stereolab Go Back to the Lab on Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Dots and Loops and Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night Expanded Editions

In 2015, speaking as the featured guest at a Red Bull Music Academy event, Stereolab frontwoman Lætitia Sadier called music journalists “lazy” for placing the band’s unique style into the box-like category of “retro-futurist pop.” Sadier had a point: Stereolab’s body of work adds up to more than just an amalgamation of stylishly retro influences. To be fair, though, the band also wore those influences on its collective sleeve, very consciously referencing not just the past, but the aesthetics of bygone art movements that looked ahead to the future in a way that seemed quaint once the late 20th century had actually arrived. One of the band’s EPs, for example, uses the term “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music” in its title. If music journalists were in fact being lazy, they were only taking the bait the band dangled in front of everyone.

Even the name Stereolab, drawn from a 1960 compilation album of sounds released by Vanguard Records for the purpose of testing then-high end home stereo equipment, was an intentional reference to “new” technology from a decades-old vantage point. So when bandleader, guitarist, chief composer and driving force Tim Gane formed Stereolab with Sadier at the dawn of the ’90s, Gane’s innovative blend of lounge/exotica, bossa nova, krautrock and the influence of pioneering electronic composers like Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley set the band apart as a hip alternative to the burgeoning alternative underground. At the same time, for the first six years of the band’s existence, Gane emphasized guitar distortion in a way that tied them to their rock peers, many of whom ( Stereolab included) were operating with one foot in the major label system and the other in the indie world.

In that same Red Bull interview from four years ago, Sadier revealed that an ambitious reissue campaign was already underway , and that it would take a long time to sort out all the logistics. Fast-forward to May of this year, when Stereolab reissued their second and third full-length albums—1993’s Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements and 1994’s Mars Audiac Quintet—to coincide with their first tour following a ten-year hiatus. The latest installment in the reissue series consists of the band’s three full-lengths from the late-’90s: Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996), Dots and Loops (1997) and the extravagantly titled Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night (1999). All three titles now come newly remastered and loaded with bonus material, including demos, stray b-sides, alternate mixes, etc. (Between them, the three sets come with 46 bonus tracks totalling over two hours of extras.)

This middle period of the band’s history was marked by a series of pivotal changes. For one, Emperor Tomato Ketchup would be the first of four albums in a row produced by John McEntire of the Chicago post-rock outfit Tortoise. Not coincidentally, Dots and Loops introduced the band’s audience to the technique of recording two sets of drum parts, each hard-panned to one side of the stereo field—a signature of McEntyre’s production style that would also become a Stereolab hallmark. (In fact, if not for the absence of vocals, the 1996 Tortoise instrumental “Glass Museum,” with its overlaying of hand percussion, drums and vibraphone, could easily be mistaken for a lost track off Emperor Tomato Ketchup). Dots and Loops also saw Gane significantly dial-back the distortion for the more spacious, airy sound that would define all of their work from that point on.

Perhaps most significantly, though, Dots and Loops was the point where the band exited the autobahn of repetitive, Neu!-inspired motorik grooves, heading out in its own direction once and for all. Before Dots and Loops, Stereolab had certainly thrown together an unusual recipe of musical styles but hadn’t necessarily hit on the most imaginative ways to combine those to arrive at fresh flavors. Grafting Equivel to avant-garde composition might have looked like a promising departure point, but Stereolab hadn’t necessarily risen above a mashup mentality yet. Sure, Sadier and late guitarist Mary Hansen wove their vocal parts together into a sweet, often breathtaking tapestry that instantly set the band apart and made Emperor Tomato Ketchup tunes like “Les Yper Sound” and “Spark Plug” soar. But Gane’s approach to the music underneath was undeniably linear and, by 1996, becoming predictable.

The bonus track “Old Lungs,” for example, encapsulates Gane’s almost monomaniacal insistence on sticking with one idea and riding it out, barely even writing changes into his tunes. Likewise, “Percolator” is driven by a rubbery bass part that repeats for the song’s entire duration, as if it had been sampled from a longer, “walking” bassline, without deviating from its main figure once. For all their charms, more than half a decade into the band’s existence, it was still easy to dismiss Stereolab as a group of indie rockers dabbling outside their comfort zone for novelty’s sake, a band teetering ever closer to falling into the trap of style over substance. The growth the band shows on Dots and Loops changed all that, but now we can get a different picture via the Emperor Tomato Ketchup demos.

It’s always a risky proposition when bands release crude demos, but in this case, the skeletal building blocks of Gane and Sadier’s parts paint a picture of songs with plenty of breathing room and promise. They also prove that Gane was actually a songwriter, not just a clever stylist with a knack for appropriating old ideas. Though he and Sadier have always been the band’s core members, Hansen and drummer Andy Ramsay (the band’s longest-tenured supporting cast member) provided essential contributions too. Often, though, every instrument sounds confined within the music, with finished Stereolab songs giving the impression that they were constructed in an actual lab by people wearing white coats and rubber gloves. The Emperor Tomato Ketchup demos show that Gane was a much looser songwriter than his rigid approach to arranging would have you believe.

Gane has always insisted that the band wasn’t actually fussy. It’s hard to reconcile those assertions with McEntyre’s pristine production ambience on Dots and Loops, but apparently McEntyre put a gleaming facade on a fairly raw process. “Our records were written and recorded very quickly,” Sadier said in the Red Bell interview. “Of course, all the love and care and attention went into them, but we didn’t ponder over these for years like, say, Broadcast or My Bloody Valentine would. There was no preciousness around making records. We were just churning them—like, literally, on a conveyor belt. We would write 35 tracks, sometimes more. And in the studio it was like, “Do all the 35 drums, 35 bass, 35 keyboards, 35 guitars.”

Sadier went on to add that the band’s working method epitomized “what I was decrying perhaps in my lyrics, which was this kind of automization of production.” But Stereolab functioned as a bundle of paradoxes to begin with. Gane’s autocratic leadership ran in direct opposition to Sadier’s politically-charged, Situationist-insired lyrics. In turn, Sadier’s most urgent cries against the cold, mechanized brutality of capitalism—summed up best when she and Hansen sing “au-to-pro-duc-tion / au-to-org-a-ni-za-tion” in a faux-robotic tone on the Emperor Tomato Ketchup track “Spark Plug”—stood in direct contrast with both the ironic “space age bachelor pad” vibe and the quest for openly beautiful sounds the band began to showcase on Dots and Loops.

Stereolab’s ultimate triumph was their ability to preserve the human factor at the core of their sound, even when it was partially (and perhaps intentionally) obscured. As arty and erudite as the music came across at times, Stereolab always meant to be accessible. Much of Cobra and Phases, in fact, sounds like the work of a jazz fusion group revisiting progressive rock at drum ‘n’ bass tempos—then suddenly switching gears into the kind dreamy pop championed by British acts like Saint Etienne and countless others. At their most inspired, though, Stereolab transcended genre reference points for a sound entirely their own, which is perhaps best demonstrated on the celestial middle section of Dots and Loops centerpiece “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse.”

As a stuttering organ and a shimmying tremolo guitar line create a cloudscape of sound, Sadier and Hansen’s voices come into view like golden rays of light beaming down to earth. Back when Stereolab were putting out these three records, it begged the question: “What will this music sound like once it’s as old as the music it draws from?” Overall, the answer is: surprisingly contemporary, especially starting with Dots and Loops. Looking back, we can now marvel with certainty at how Stereolab managed to transcend time itself.

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