The Stereolab reissues kick off in fine style.
These two reissues are the first of a series that makes up a year-long initiative to release expanded versions of Stereolab’s discography up to and including 2004’s Margerine Eclipse, presumably in concert with the group’s announced 2019 tour, which includes its first North American dates in over a decade. The first of these, Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements, was the group’s first album on Elektra, and the second, Mars Audiac Quintet, saw the departure of Sean O’Hagan as a full-time member.
Though associated with the post-rock movement—it was drummer John McEntire of Tortoise and of the Sea and Cake, after all, who would help them produce their most acclaimed album, Emperor Tomato Ketchup—the group was in a sense “more” than that, combining analogue and digital influences as disparate as pop, electronica, world music, lounge, psychedelia, krautrock, funk and jazz. Hearing Stereolab for the first time, as an unsuspecting initiate, you are likely to feel like you’re listening to the house band for the coolest, most cosmopolitan and intellectual café that’s ever existed, musicians that are as likely to recommend you obscure records as they are to give you critical theory reading tips. With rotating personnel and an avant-garde attitude, Stereolab feels more like an art movement than a mere band.
The lineups on these two albums are more or less the same, with Laetitia Sadier and Tim Gane at the helm; the main difference comes with the addition of Katharine Gifford on Mars, who joined on organ and synth to make up for O’Hagan’s lost parts. As is customary for these sorts of reissues, most of the goodies come in the form of alternative mixes and demos. Although this is sometimes a gambit with classic albums—there is usually some reason those leftovers are…well, left over. But in this case, the extra material gives us a welcome occasion to give further reflection to the nature of Stereolab’s experimentation and musical omnivorousness.
On Transient, the 18-minute assault of “Jenny Ondioline” is (one of) the main attraction(s). Bonus footage of this song includes a far shorter EP version, a couple mixes of the breakdown section and a demo version to boot. In addition to offering listeners a much less obstructed experience of Sadier’s vocals and the skeleton of the track, these extras deconstruct the final product and give us a sense of the imagination and ambition it would have taken to make the leap from what sound like preliminary sketches to the outright maelstrom of the final version. Other treats include “Fruition [Demo],” a minimal, vocal-led track that manages to enchant in just 82 seconds, and a haunting demo version of “Lock Groove Lullaby,” which is less busy and more melancholy than the final version, closer to a Young Marble Giants song.
Mars, of course, spawned one of Stereolab’s most recognizable tunes, “Ping Pong,” which sounds like something France Gall or Françoise Hardy might have recorded if they had studio wizardry at their disposal. But it also has more experimental songs that see the band digging deeper into its ambient influences. In this respect, “Ulan Bator” and “Klang Tone” (which had already been official bonus tracks) remain welcome additions, complemented by tracks such as “Melochord Seventy-Five,” which has a Velvet Underground-meets-shoegaze sound and a sludgier, less skittering feel than many of their songs. Here, too, the demo version of “Des Étoiles Electroniques” is more restrained, fragmented and melancholy than what it ended up sounding like on the album. As is perhaps to be expected, the demos overall tend to highlight the singing more processed final versions do, and so it is nice to be so close to the vocals as one feels on “Three Longers Later” and “Transona Five.” They give one the idea of a more lo-fi Stereolab; indeed, it gives one a fine mixtape idea to pursue once all the reissues are out.
In short, the Stereolab reissues kick off in fine style. Though they will not supplant the originals, they nonetheless give one food for thought when it comes to reassessing and reappreciating this singular group. Perhaps it says more of the listener than the group itself that it should be such a pleasure to hear some of the songs so relatively unadorned.