Stereolab in concert to take us into the direction of the weekend. In case you don’t already know: Stereolab were an English-French avant-pop band from London, formed in 1990 by Tim Gane (guitar/keyboards) and Lætitia Sadier (vocals/keyboards/guitar) who both remained at the songwriting helm across many line-up changes. Other long-time members included Mary Hansen (backing vocals/keyboards/guitar), who joined in 1992 and remained in the line-up until her accidental death in 2002, and Andy Ramsay (drums), who joined in 1993 and is still in the official line-up. Sean O’Hagan of the High Llamas was a member from 1993 to 1994, and continued appearing on later records for occasional guest appearances.
By January 1994, Stereolab achieved their first chart entry when the 1993 EP Jenny Ondioline, entered at number 75 on the UK Singles Chart. (Over the next three years, four more releases by the band would appear on this chart, ending with the EP Miss Modular in 1997.) Their third album, Mars Audiac Quintet, was released in August 1994. The band focused more on pop and less on rock, resulting in what AllMusic described as “what may be the group’s most accessible, tightly-written album”.Mars Audiac Quintet makes heavy use of vintage electronic instruments, and also contains the single “Ping Pong”, released in July 1994. The single gained press coverage for its allegedly explicitly Marxist lyrics. It was the last album to feature O’Hagan as a full-time member. He would continue to make guest appearances on later releases. The group issued an EP titled Music for the Amorphous Body Study Center in April 1995. The EP was their musical contribution to an interactive art exhibit put on in collaboration with New York City artist Charles Long. Their second compilation of rarities, titled Refried Ectoplasm (Switched On, Vol. 2), was released in July 1995.
The band’s fourth album, Emperor Tomato Ketchup (March 1996), was a critical success and was played heavily on college radio. A record that “captivated alternative rock”, it represented the group’s “high-water mark” said music journalists Tom Moon and Joshua Klein, respectively. The album incorporated their early krautrock sound with hip-hop influences and experimental instrumental arrangements. Stephan Davet of French newspaper Le Monde said that the album had musical influences such as the Velvet Underground, Burt Bacharach, and Françoise Hardy. John McEntire of Tortoise also assisted with production and played on the album. Katharine Gifford was replaced by Morgane Lhote before recording, and bassist Duncan Brown by Richard Harrison after. On the same year, Stereolab collaborated with Herbie Mann on the song “One Note Samba/Surfboard” for the AIDS-Benefit album, Red Hot + Rio, produced by the Red Hot Organization.
Released in September 1997, Dots and Loops was their first album to enter the Billboard 200 charts, peaking at number 111.Barney Hoskyns wrote in Rolling Stone that with the album, the group moved “ever further away from the one-chord Velvets drone-mesh of its early days” toward easy listening and Europop. A review in German newspaper Die Zeit stated that in Dots and Loops, Stereolab transformed the harder Velvet Underground-like riffs of previous releases into “softer sounds and noisy playfulness”. Contributors to the album included John McEntire, along with Sean O’Hagan of the High Llamas and Jan St. Werner of German electropop duo Mouse on Mars. A second Nurse With Wound collaboration, Simple Headphone Mind, was released in 1997. Stereolab’s third compilation of rarities, Aluminum Tunes, was issued in October 1998. Stereolab collaborated with French avant-garde singer and poet Brigitte Fontaine in the single “Calimero” on the same year.
The group took a break from touring while Gane and Sadier had a child. Their sixth album, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, was released in September 1999, co-produced by McEntire and American producer Jim O’Rourke. The album received mixed reviews for its lighter sound, and peaked at number 154 on the Billboard 200. An unsigned NME review said that “this record has far more in common with bad jazz and progressive rock than any experimental art-rock tradition.” In a 1999 article of Washington Post, Mark Jenkins asked Gane about the album’s apparent lack of guitars; Gane responded, “There’s a lot less upfront, distorted guitar … But it’s still quite guitar-based music. Every single track has a guitar on it.” Stereolab recruited a new bassist, Simon Johns, for their Cobra and Phases Group … tour.
Stereolab’s seventh album, Sound-Dust (August 2001), rose to number 178 on the Billboard 200. The album also featured producers McEntire and O’Rourke. Although Sound-Dust was more positively received, like Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, reviews were still mixed.Critic Joshua Klein said that “the emphasis this time sounds less on unfocused experimentation and more on melody … a breezy and welcome return to form for the British band.” Klein also commented that “never has it been harder to discern just what [Sadier] is singing, but rarely has her gibberish sounded so pleasant.”
In case you missed them, here is their Reading Festival appearance, recorded on August 22, 1997 by the venerable BBC Radio 1.