“John Cage Bubblegum” isn’t just the name of a Stereolab song.
It’s a catchphrase-worthy encapsulation of what makes the band great. Formed by Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier in 1990, the group have long walked a tightrope between accessibility and obscurity, crafting experimental pop songs that have transcended their time. Voracious music lovers with a deep interest in Marxist theory, Stereolab could pen songs that talked about the excesses of capitalism that sounded like futuristic French pop. You could imagine the characters in a sci-fi illustration by Shag putting on a Stereolab record while they sit back and drink martinis on a luxurious space station. And they did it all with a cheeky sense of humor, best exhibited by the calling card they carved into the runout etching on their first 45: “Neu Kids On The Block.”
After going on a long hiatus in 2009, the band have recently returned to touring as a wave of reissues for their early records have come out. They’ll be stopping by on Thursday, October 10, to play a show at Crescent Ballroom. If you haven’t been exposed to their dreamy, propulsive music before, now is as good a time as any to lose yourself in the Stereolab universe.
Here are 10 entry points into the Stereolab catalog — one from each of their records.
"Surrealchemist" (Peng!, 1992)
This highlight from Peng! finds the ladies of Stereolab intoning lyrics like “over the cowering mendacity of bourgeoise/Christian civilization” with bucolic melodies in a hazy atmosphere before the song builds up to a heavy organ workout. It shifts from British folk-rock to White Light/White Heat-era Velvet Underground in the blink of an eye.
"Pack Yr Romantic Mind" (Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements, 1993)
Transient Random-Noise Bursts doubles as both the band’s major-label debut and U.S. premiere. It finds the band in full krautrock mode. Embracing charging motorik rhythms and hypnotic guitars, Transient highlights like the 18-minute long “Jenny Ondioline” show off Stereolab’s Faust and Neu! fan club bona fides.
The highlight of the album is “Pack Yr Romantic Mind,” a chill slice of lounge perfection that fuses bossa nova, ye-ye, and ominous guitar licks into gorgeous space-age bachelor pad music.
"Fiery Yellow" (Mars Audiac Quintet, 1994)
“Fiery Yellow” is the closing number on Mars Audiac Quintet. It sounds like the kind of music exotica legend Esquivel would have written if he lived in the age of The Jetsons. The track is Martin Denny’s “Quiet Village” floating in zero gravity, making it the perfect song to listen to while putting together a tiki party for visiting alien dignitaries.
"Metronomic Underground" (Emperor Tomato Ketchup, 1996)
While earlier Stereolab albums built their songs around drones and compelling riffs, Gane was inspired to switch songwriting gears after remixing the work of legendary '60s psychedelic band The Godz. The songs on Emperor Tomato Ketchup are driven by hypnotic patterns that inspired the band to try on new approaches, like their take on funk. “Metronomic Underground” shows off this looser, funkier side of the band as they apply their brand of cosmic cocktail music to blaxploitation soundtracks. The track sounds like vintage Curtis Mayfield stoned on some extra skunky Martian junk.
"Miss Modular" (Dots and Loops, 1997)
In a parallel universe, Stereolab wrote music for the Katamari Damacy games. “Miss Modular” is Exhibit A for why it would have been a dream gig for the band. Their bubbly, eccentric melange of jazz, cocktail music, sighing harmonies, and drones would have been a perfect fit for those video games. Go ahead, try listening to Sadier and Hansen sing without picturing yourself as Katamari’s prince of the universe, running around and rolling up trees and pigeons and swing sets while Stereolab sing about trompe l’oeils.
“Come And Play In The Milky Night” (Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, 1999)
For all the sunny aspects to their music, Stereolab had a knack for creating unnerving soundscapes. Working with Tortoise’s John McEntire and multi-instrumentalist and studio wizard Jim O’Rourke as producers, the band explored more disquieting textures on songs like “Come and Play in the Milky Night.” Anchored by eerie radio noises and dark guitar strumming, “Come and Play in the Milky Night” is a song for the after-hours, when the party is winding down and the uncertainty of the future is staring you dead in the face.
"The Black Arts" (Sound-Dust, 2001)
Sound-Dust is deeply significant in the Stereolab discography. It's the last album to feature guitarist and singer Mary Hansen. She was struck by a truck while she was on her bicycle. She died in December 2002 at the age of 36. It’s a loss that would reverberate and shape their remaining albums. The band’s interpersonal dynamic would grow increasingly tense, especially after the breakup between Gane and Sadier, who were both musical and romantic partners for most of Stereolab’s existence.
But that all comes later. For now, we have the delightful “The Black Arts," which solves the question of what Vince Guaraldi’s music would sound like if he composed it after taking an entire sheet of acid.
"Cosmic Country Noir" (Margerine Eclipse, 2004)
Opening from a bed of video game sounds and rinky-dinky beats, “Cosmic Country Noir” builds up to another cooing Stereolab vocal reverie until the guitars begin to sprawl out and twist into knotty shapes. Like many of the songs on Margerine Eclipse, it has a subtly disorienting effect on the listener, thanks to the record’s dual-mono mixing (where each instrumental and vocal part is hard-panned to hit in either the left or right channel only). It’s a fitting testament to Hansen’s work with the band: The production creates a hole by design that none of the songs manages to fill.
"Pop Molecule" (Chemical Chords, 2008)
This is the band’s ninth and final studio album. Gane and Sadier offer varying reasons for why the band split, including exhaustion from touring (and the strain it placed on their families) and creative conflicts. For most of the band’s run, Gane wrote the music while Sadier was the primary lyricist. She ended up forming a side project, Monade, to flex the songwriting muscles she wasn’t able to use in Stereolab.
As curtain calls go, Chemical Chords is as good a stage bow to go out on as any. Especially with a marvel like “Pop Molecule,” wherein the Stereolab boys and girls earn their acid rock merit badges with this drum-driven freakout.
“Laserblast” (Not Music, 2010)
While Chemical Chords is the last “proper” album by the band, they later put a collection of unreleased tracks that were recorded during that same period. While many of the songs on Not Music share the same Motown/Brazilian music/French pop DNA that can be found on Chemical Chords, there are interesting deviations from the Stereolab formula on this P.S. to their swan song. Take a song like “Laserblast,” which combines intricate, tangled guitar chords with New Wave-y textures and percolating percussion that would sound right at home in an old Merrie Melodies joint. No matter how well-worn their sonic territory was, Stereolab could always find new combinations of retro sounds and make them sound like transmissions from the future.
Stereolab are scheduled to perform at Crescent Ballroom on Thursday, October 10. The show is currently sold out.