The funny thing about January in Southern California is how much the
weather this time of year reminds me of when we used to have a season
called ‘Spring’ in the Midwest*. Out here we go from cold in December (for us, maybe 50
degrees during the day and max low of thirty-something at night) to
this amazing, energetic spring-like warmth that floats in on gentle
breezes and shifts delicately between just the right amount of chilly
and a vital, refreshing warmth. This is the weather I most equate, for whatever reason, with a lot of
the music from my teenage years and as such when it hits I tend to break out
the 90’s stuff – Soundgarden, Sugar, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and, on heavy
rotation especially this year, STEREOLAB.
Stereolab is a fascinating band to me. In the twenty years they have been making music they have produced a lot of
records. Not all of them are as good as the best of them, but by and
large there is not a ‘bad’ Stereolab song, let alone album. And there are a lot of exceptionally good ones to boot.
That being said the album that always gets me is ‘Transient Random-Noise Bursts with
Announcements’. To me start to finish this is not only the group’s best work, as every song is awesome, but perhaps their tightest. The experimentation is there, as we like it to be in Stereolab’s work, but it never overstays its welcome and it always works perfectly within the constraints of the songs. Some Stereolab albums have a more ‘Anthological’ feel – i.e. – a selection of songs that do not necessarily gel as a seamless statement. Transient Random is an Album, proper, and as such front to back the order of the tracks is just as important as the tracks themselves.
Another thing to consider about Transient Random – when this album is listened to with consideration
extended to the way in which it falls in the legacy of what unfortunately became
popularly known as ‘Alternative’ music it is, I think, something of a
missing link. Within the confines of its multi-layered organs and
synths, bizarre recording processes** and repetitively entrancing bass
lines and sketchy, saturated guitar accompaniment Stereolab’s 1993 Opus (their first
American release for Elektra records) serves as a prototype and
predecessor for much of the electronic music to follow later that same
decade, from Bristol Trip Hop masters Massive Attack’s masterpiece
‘Mezzanine’ to Portishead’s eerie explorations of analogue synth that swim and swarm beneath Beth Gibbon’s haunting vocals. I’d go a step further and argue that links can even be found in much of the way the once underground
British rave scene slowly infiltrated the mainstream. Listen to some of
Paul Oakenfold’s more recent (read: last ten years or so) work, or
maybe . The link isn’t obvious, but I’m pretty sure it’s there.
It would not be fair to simply condemn Stereolab to just the electronic circle – the 90’s were largely about ‘Indie’ rock*** – big labels scrambling to sign it and little labels like Touch and Go, Slumberland, Shimmy Disc and Quarterstick providing the curious with an ever-escalating array of fantastic new bands to tour the little venues of the country and provide relatively cheap live rock and roll at a rate that the majors just couldn’t match. Stereolab was invigoratingly involved in this on both levels. Their French Pop-meets-Talking Heads-meets-Can approach to texturally lush and catchy-as-all-hell songwriting influenced soooo many. I’m sure with 2010 marking Stereolab’s twentieth anniversary as a band we’re about due for a tribute album of some sort and it will be interesting to see who shows up to the party to pay homage. My guesses would include everybody from Frank Bla… I mean Black Francis to Enon to Cornelius to The Go Team! and maybe, just maybe even the grand Poobah himself, David Bowie.
I cannot finish this blog without relating the sad side of Stereolab. I’ll never forget the day in 2002 when I heard that Mary Hansen, secondary vocalist in the group had died when hit by a truck while riding her bicycle. Tragedy – Mary, while occasionally taking the front reigns on vocals with Stereolab more often could be found providing light and carefree accompaniment to Laetitia Sadier’s iconic voice. In this way Mary herself became quite iconic, and this transferred to her other projects, a favorite of mine for instance being Europa51’s album ABSTRACTIONS – published posthumously in 2003, specifically the track Free Range Corona (sorry, I looked for a link but couldn’t find one) where Mary’s light and cheery ‘La-la-la’s’ always put a smile on my face, even if those smiles are tinged bittersweet at having lost such a marvelous human being****.
Happy Birthday Stereolab, and godspeed Mary, wherever you are!!!
* I dare you to tell me it still exists as an honest-to-goodness season and not just fleeting intervals.
** At one point a song loops back onto itself 180 degrees out of phase, and that is not the weirdest trick in the book.
*** Before that phrase became co-opted by bow tie bumblers and ‘look-at me-I-dress-like-an-old-man-in-an-attempt-to-appear-hip-in-a-1950’s Eastern-block-poverty-and-hopelessness-but-with-a-trust-fund-kind-of-way’ douche bags.
**** Which brings to mind how an awful radio dj named ‘fook’ (do you think he realizes his radio handle is also the name of a fantastic Pigface album? Doubtful) on Chicago’s q101 made the comment, ‘who cares, they (Stereolab) suck anyway’ when reporting Mary’s death on the radio. The outrage from this was swift but not really sharp enough for me and so I’ll leave you all with a link to what Chicago’s Dave Chamberlain of New City magazine had to say and my own heartfelt hopes that fook’s testicles get caught in a crazy French Pop enthusiast’s stereophonic vice grip, only to have ultra-low frequencies bubble up through said genitalia and overload his already feeble mind with waves of the most nauseating pain imaginable.
The link: http://www.newcitychicago.com/chicago/2126.html