Stereolab: Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements/Mars Audiac Quintet

Stereolab’s catalog stretches over two decades of constant experimentation and subtle reinvention that began in 1990 when Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier (the only two constant members) first formed the group. Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements (1993) and Mars Audiac Quintet (1994) are their second and third “proper” albums, following in the wake of numerous DIY singles and EPs, and the full-length debut, Peng! (1992). The two albums, which have just been reissued with several extra tracks and demos, mark a period of transition for the band, one during which they became more conscious of sound and space on their recordings while also bringing their myriad influences and ideas into tighter focus.

Early Stereolab gigs could be cacophonous affairs. Sounding not unlike a motorik Spacemen 3, with Sadier doing her best Nico impression on vocals (when you could hear her over the droning guitars, that is), Stereolab Mach 1 would have sat comfortably on a bill with any of the shoegaze bands of the era. Several tracks on Transient reflect this, capturing the band at their most rocking and distorted. But an evolution was already under way—if not so much on stage yet, at least in the studio.

Significantly, in 1992, guitarist and second vocalist Mary Hansen joined the band. While Sadier’s vocals, sung in both English and French, could often be cool, detached or minor key, the addition of Hansen’s vocal provided a clever melodic counterpoint. The combination was downright captivating and would become one of Stereolab’s signature attributes up until Hansen’s accidental death in 2002.

Secondly, multi-instrumentalist Sean O’Hagan would also come into the fold during this time. The one-time co-founder of Irish band Microdisney was at somewhat loose ends in London, half-working on a nascent version of his new band the High Llamas, when he and Stereolab linked up. A lifelong Brian Wilson fan who obsessed over orchestral arrangements and sonic placement, O’Hagan felt like the perfect foil, at the perfect time, for minimalist and Krautrock fan Gane. (Note: This became very much a two-way street, as the previously acoustic guitar-driven High Llamas would go on to incorporate more electronics on subsequent releases. O’Hagan and Gane still collaborate to this day, too.)

One can’t help but to be reminded of one interviewer’s encounter with O’Hagan in the mid-1990s, not long after the release of Mars Audiac Quintet. Meeting for an early lunch, the twosome entered a large, empty cafe and were told by the hostess that they could sit wherever they like. O’Hagan chose a table roughly in the center of the restaurant. He sat for a moment, then suggested they shift over one table. O’Hagan then paused again, looking around the room at the four small speakers suspended from the ceiling quietly pulsing out generic ’80s pop. “Sorry,” O’Hagan apologized, “just another table over.” The two shifted again and O’Hagan sat for another moment before nodding his head. “There, that’s it,” he confirmed. “Awful music but at least we got the balance right.”

This attention to acoustic detail and arranging would prove another key factor during this period in Stereolab’s evolution. Make no mistake, the influence of Faust, Neu!, Can et.al remained at the fore of many of the band’s lengthy, chugging, often single-chord explorations. But the small details and subtle progressions that Gane was so keen to express in his songs were now becoming easier to detect. It was rather like Terry Riley’s “In C” being performed with droning guitars, Farfisa organ, and the occasional brass accent.

With that in mind, some of the extras included with this reissue are enlightening.

The 3:50 demo for future staple “Jenny Ondioline” (the album version of which is a heavyweight, 18-minute kosmische workout) reveals a genuinely catchy little pop song at its core. Until, that is, you zoom in on the unflinching sarcasm in its lyrics: “I don’t care if the fascists have to win / I don’t care that democracy’s being fucked.”

Usually less-discussed than the music, the band’s lyrics were no less significant–they never shied away from a bit of subversive (or, indeed, overt) left-wing polemic. Gane’s previous band, McCarthy, had featured an avowed communist as their lead singer, after all. But, at the same time, there was a detectable romantic streak beneath the drone, too. Gane and Sadier were a couple for much of the band’s career, of course, but the romance found here is more to do with nostalgia for eras past or a lament for crushed ideals.

By the time Mars was released, Stereolab’s other, typically outsider, music influences were becoming increasingly evident—especially Brazilian, ’60s lounge and early, experimental electronic music (indeed, the album is sprinkled with vintage Moog synth sounds throughout). One of the notable extras on the Mars reissue is a simple guitar and bass-led demo for “Des Etoiles Electronique”. Absent the glitter of analog synth on top, it sounds like Tom Jobim and Elis Regina sketching out a future bossa nova classic. Likewise the demo for “Ping Pong”, another gem here.

To put these releases in the context of the time, it was during this same period that Britpop was starting to explode across the UK, on its way to becoming one of the defining sounds of the decade. Stereolab found much favor with the NME and Britpop crowds (Sadier even sang a guest vocal, in French, on Blur’s single “To The End” in spring of ‘94), which they managed without ever surrendering their place on the fringes. Perhaps not coincidentally, the mid-’90s also enjoyed a revival of lounge and easy listening music (in particular, the space-age-driven “bachelor pad music” of the early 60s and Les Baxter’s forays into what became known as “exotica”) along with a renewed interest in ’60s German music. Stereolab could certainly lay claim to having helped along both rediscoveries.

There’s a spoken word sample at beginning of “International Colouring Contest”, one of their standout tracks from this period, that features the eccentric singer Lucia Pamela laughing almost maniacally, “I’m so full of ideas, and here’s a good one!” This was Stereolab in 1994—a group of thinkers, record collectors, counter-culturalists, and sonic adventurers who were just bursting with ideas and new musical paths to explore.

The band’s next move would be to soundtrack an art installation (Music For the Amorphous Body Study Center (1994)), then release their most commercial (yet sonically-adventurous) album yet, Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996). Those two subsequent releases felt like Stereolab’s next great leap forward. But they would not have happened without the two previous albums—Mars, in particular—serving as both foundation and creative bridge. words/d sherlock

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