Stereolab plays Cybele’s Reverie on Later with Jools Holland.
the former package contains three discs of obscure material and alternative versions of well-known tracks, going all the way back to the group’s early days. and it includes a dvd of videos. the latter is a single-disc collection of tracks from recent singles. that’s four new music discs to digest! i’ll be listening to this stuff for weeks.
let me get the bad stuff out of the way, and say i don’t like stereolab’s videos. it’s the same old tired clichés every other group has already done to death. here’s the band pretending to play in a meadow, here’s a bunch of really WEIRD sequences of BIZARRE STUFF that you CAN’T UNDERSTAND but you just KNOW it’s CHOCK-FULL of DEEP, INSPIRING MEANING. there is one sequence of olde-tyme tap dancers i sort of liked, but that’s it.
the clips of the band on tv shows are a little better, because they are not so pretentious. alas, that’s about the best thing i can say about them. i think a stage band should be energetic, charismatic, and photogenic. stereolab is none of those things. they go onstage looking like a bunch of dorks that just rolled out of bed. laetitia sadier, the face of the band, looks downright uncomfortable, like she’s not too far from bursting into tears.
in one sequence, the band has a four-piece string section behind them. at the point in the song where they come in, laetitia directs the audience’s attention to the violinists behind her. that was one of the few times i had that stomach-fluttering “oh my god they’re PLAYING MUSIC” feeling. i feel a lot of affection for the band, because their music has gotten under my skin. but if that was my first-ever exposure, i can’t say that i would be overly impressed.
okay, enough of that. on to the positive stuff.
like the cocteau twins before them, stereolab is having two simultaneous careers. there is the high-profile one, documented on the long-playing CDs everybody’s heard of, and the obscure one, found only on singles and EPs that you can’t get your hands on unless you’re willing to trample babies and kittens. i was younger and more dedicated during the cocteau twins’ heyday, so i dutifully trampled whatever babies and kittens i had to. i was in my thirties when i finally “got” stereolab, so i haven’t felt the commitment necessary to get their obscure stuff.
i don’t think either band was trying to spike their “indie cred” by releasing material that was intentionally rare, and therefore more prized by hardcore fans. i think it’s that the music biz no longer considers shorter-than-album-length works to be worth their time. these days, that stuff never makes it into the usual distribution channels. things were a lot different when i was a kid. the labels sold cheap 45RPM singles to teens and pre-teens with meager allowances, and full-length vinyl albums to young adults. now, music industry people think: we sell albums to everybody, and singles to ... hey, when does that new britney spears record come out? because we can totally sell the bejesus out of that thing.
both bands eventually decided to do a favor for their less dedicated fans and issue a collection that included most of the rare stuff, with a list price high enough to motivate the music biz to promote and sell it. for the cocteau twins, it was the box set. for stereolab, it is oscillons. since i haven’t been keeping up, it’s mostly new to me. and fab four suture is new to everybody.
i’ve listened to all of this new-to-me stuff four times now. it’s very competently played, as per the usual stereolab modus operandi. i don’t think they’re capable of releasing anything embarrassing. as is also typical for the band, there are only a few standout tracks: kyberneticka babicka pt 1 and pt 2, fluorescences, long life love. it would be cool if there was something fiery and original in here somewhere, but bands that produce that kind of thing tend to burn out quickly.
as incredible as it seems, stereolab has been playing and recording continuously since 1991. laetitia met tim gane in a club during a performance of his previous band, and they started a romantic relationship and a new band. most groups that have been around that long have had at least one or two dark periods and released a few records that their fans prefer not to speak of. that fate has never befallen stereolab. they are the opposite of mercurial. their lows are never all that low, and their highs are never all that high. when elizabeth fraser and robin guthrie broke up, they eventually took the cocteau twins down with them. stereolab has suffered the death of a key member in a traffic accident and the breakup of tim and laetitia’s relationship, but the group is still going. it’s strange, emotionally stable people usually don’t start bands.
i got involved when i bought mars audiac quintet in 1995, about a year after it came out. it was one of the most confident and skillful records i’ve ever heard. after that, i bought every stereolab record i could get my hands on, but none of them could hold a candle to that first one, in my opinion. they all seemed far too similar to me, one track indistinguishable from the next. none of it was horrible, it just didn’t jump out at me the way my favorite music did. but i kept buying the new records when they came out, because what if they released another mars audiac quintet and i missed it? that would be BAD.
stereolab didn’t change, so i guess i did. apparently i listened to the records often enough to get onto their wavelength. or maybe i got old enough to appreciate non-mercurial, safely predictable music played by emotionally stable adults. i guess it was sound-dust and abc music that finally won me over, and made me think that they must be onto something. stereolab has been my favorite band since then, for about five years now.
after all this time, i get the feeling that they still “believe.” you have to be careful about that, of course. i think the rolling stones still do, too: they believe in the nourishing, replenishing power of nutritious, yummy BRANES. oh, if only those guys could have kicked their sad addiction to endless, mindless adoration and figured out how to be adults. there but for the grace of god go i.