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Stereolab - Switched On / Refried Ectoplasm / Aluminum Tunes Music Albums Reviews

Singles and splits documented a band’s between-albums evolution during the 1990s. These compilations, remastered and reissued, reveal that process for one of the era’s most innovative groups.

In the 1990s, being an indie fan required a deep familiarity with the blank tape. Much of a band’s activity took place on singles, EPs, compilations, and other formats extraneous to the long-playing studio album. For die-hard listeners, that meant compiling miscellany on cassette and sequencing it into a form that didn’t require hours crouched over a turntable, changing records every few songs—an early form of today’s playlisting.

Chief among the groups helping fuel the decade’s sales of Maxell XLIIs and TDK SA90s were Stereolab. The UK band’s first decade played out like a game of hide-and-seek across scattered black (and yellow, pink, clear, and marbled) discs: 7"s, 10"s, flexi-discs, split singles, tour-only souvenirs, oddball one-offs. Throughout the ’90s, Stereolab averaged a new album every 15 months. But as they evolved from the jangle and crunch of lo-fi indie pop to a knottier amalgam of krautrock and easy listening, much of their development happened between albums.

Keeping up with the band could require a significant cash outlay, though they made good on their Marxist ethos by intermittently compiling all that material for the masses who didn’t have $60 for a rare Nurse With Wound collaboration in its reflective silver sleeve. To revisit those anthologies—1992’s Switched On, 1995’s Refried Ectoplasm, and 1998’s Aluminum Tunes, all newly reissued through the group’s own Duophonic UHF Disks—is to retrace the development of one of the era’s most creatively dynamic bands.

Switched On is the simplest of the three. Released in the fall of 1992 five months after Stereolab’s introductory album, Peng!, it compiles Stereolab’s first three singles from 1991—Super-Electric, Stunning Debut Album, and Super 45. The band was still a tidy quartet: drummer Joe Dilworth (of th’ Faith Healers), bassist Martin Kean (formerly of the Chills), multi-instrumentalist Tim Gane, and Laetitia Sadier singing sweetly in French and English about topics plucked from a grad student’s dog-eared textbooks. The band’s sound was fuzzier than it would soon become, brimming with stompbox abuse and two-chord rave-ups; the drums and guitars of “Brittle” and “Contact” are but a stone’s throw from shoegaze. Even then, the outlines of their sound, and the roadmap to their future, were fully realized in intricate detail.

In the first three tracks here, Stereolab leap from the thrillingly linear and hard-charging “Super-Electric” to the more wistful, Farfisa-powered “Doubt” to the shuffling study in vocal counterpoint, “Au Grand Jour’.” On the eight-and-a-half minute “Contact,” they morph from a demure shimmer to the kind of airplane-roar climax that made their early concerts so exciting and deafening. And though Sadier’s dulcet voice seems to float, her lyrics—easy to miss by ear, but impossible to forget once you’ve deciphered them—are prescient. “Is it enough to show/How the nightmare works/So the people will wake up/Is it enough?” she sings during “Doubt.” The observation feels more apropos than ever now: What is doubt if not the defining quality of the post-truth political era?

In 1993, Stereolab shifted into overdrive, releasing three major works before 1994 was up. The Groop Played “Space Age Batchelor Pad Music” is a mini-LP with a dreamy mood. Their sophomore album, Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, is heavier than its predecessor. Mars Audiac Quintet, their third, is the crown jewel of their early, motorik phase. Released 11 months after Mars, the collection Refried Ectoplasm (Switched On Volume 2) captures the run-up to that peak.

Stereolab are clearly testing the proportions of their sound, balancing the rough, the smooth, and the sly. “Harmonium”—a 1992 single by the power trio of Gane, Sadier, and Dilworth—is a grinding slab of maximalist minimalism in full Suicide mode. “Lo Boob Oscillator,” a 1993 Sub Pop single by a six-piece, marries crisp 1960s pop hooks to metronomic drumming and coruscating drones. They’re sometimes refreshingly straightforward here. On “Revox,” they pummel away, channeling their live intensity through chords that shift up and down, like the gearbox of a sports car hugging mountainous curves. “Revox” reveals the outlines of an increasingly raw sound and shows signs of growing lyrical daring, too. The sweet ba-ba-ba harmonies are actually a series of French verbs: “To pine/To quiver/To die/To moan … To suffer/To sleep/To appear/To vomit.”

But Refried Ectoplasm also documents Stereolab at their experimental best. The 14-minute “Animal or Vegetable [A Wonderful Wooden Reason...],” a collaboration with British avant-garde trickster Nurse With Wound, begins with several minutes of backmasked vocals. It veers into dirge-like psychedelic stomp before ending with an explosion of haywire musique concrète—gunfire, barnyard animals, rehearsal tapes spit out by a malfunctioning machine.

The biggest shift of Stereolab’s career came after Mars Audiac Quintet, as the band fully embraced unusual time signatures, ultra-vivid production, and the record-collector winks that distinguished 1996’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup and 1997’s Dots and Loops. This is the ground covered by 1998’s sprawling Aluminum Tunes, which collects music from 1994 until 1997. The 25-track set begins with the six-song Music for the Amorphous Body Center EP, created as the complement to an exhibition by the sculptor Charles Long. If amoebas could dance, they’d waltz to this burbling, squelching suite. “Iron Man,” an exotica-inspired and breakbeat-driven single from 1997, is the better indication of where they were headed. The wordless vocal samples and elastic pedal steel are kitschy and cartoonish, while the rolling drums suggest the extent to which the group was keeping an eye on what the era’s DJs were doing. There are two more explicit nods to DJ culture in the compilation’s two remixes.

Not everything here is essential, of course; an anthology sourced from 7" B-sides will, by definition, contain some filler. My personal C100 of Stereolab rarities would not include “One Note Samba / Surfboard,” their flute-laced collab with Herbie Mann. But Aluminum Tunes’ best songs, like the unexpectedly lovely “One Small Step,” rank among their best material, period. And “Speedy Car,” a 5/4 escapade with Afrobeat touches that cycles endlessly upward, offers teasing hints at paths not taken.

It’s in these mutations, so close to but so far from Stereolab’s album material, where it becomes clear why fans could be so obsessive about tracking down these rarities as they trickled out, one 7" at a time—and why, somewhere along the line, even the nice-price anthologies themselves became collectors’ items. With the band’s sneakily seductive protest music feeling more necessary than ever, now’s the perfect time for these reissues.

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