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Four Tet - Live at Alexandra Palace London, 8th and 9th May 2019 Music Album Reviews

Kieran Hebden’s new live album reminds us that he is a stellar performer, not just a producer.
The British producer Kieran Hebden has one of the most distinctive signatures in electronic music. First, a gravelly drum machine; then, some jewel-toned synth pads; and, finally, a strip of harp or chimes or wordless cooing, unspooling like wrinkled ribbon.

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Stereolab - Emperor Tomato Ketchup Music Album Reviews

Today on Pitchfork, we are publishing new reviews of five important early Stereolab records, each one a rung on the ladder of one of the most exceptional and historically influential bands.

Shuji Terayama’s 1971 film Tomato Kecchappu Kôtei was an abject and poetic satire of utopianism, a kind of Lord of the Flies meets Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló, in which children enslave their parents and create new world order of ritualized sex and violence. It begins with a perhaps tongue-in-cheek quote attributed to Karl Marx, a rough translation of which would be: “A focus on accumulating pleasure, not wealth, will bring capitalism down.”

By the time Stereolab took the title of the film for their 1996 album, they’d accumulated an astonishing amount of pleasure, if not wealth. While lyricist Lætitia Sadier was more of a socialist than a Marxist, the earworms like “Ping Pong” and “Peng! 33” she and polymath guitarist Tim Gane cultivated were philosophical tracts as pop tracks, deconstructing economics with pithy verse-chorus-verse structures. Since forming in 1991, Stereolab had stocked shelves with three albums, two compilations, two mini-albums, eight EPs, and thirteen singles, each beautifully packaged, uniformly excellent, and on offer in various limited editions of colored vinyl. Were the lyrics critiquing their own delivery system? Was the medium the message?

Emperor Tomato Ketchup is a close as the Lab would ever get to a definitive answer. It documents a premillennial moment in which people—jazzbos in Chicago and red mods doing the Mashed Potato in Washington, D.C., riot grrrls in the Northwest, bass cadets in Sheffield, and the chic set in Paris and the retro-futurists in Birmingham, and especially crate-diggers in Tokyo and London and New York—wondered if record collecting and community organizing might be the same thing. Yes and no, Stereolab replies. They made dialectics you can dance to, and that was revolution enough.

While their previous work explored motorik’s horizontal momentum and the aspirational levitation of exotica, ETK was something different. Like Talking Heads’ Remain in Light or LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled debut or Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War, the album consolidated international movements into people-pleasing new forms of funk. Its 13 tracks matched polyrhythms to political slogans with results as electrifying as the needle-on-the-record/tornado-on-the-horizon cover art the Groop nicked from a 1964 Béla Bartók LP cover.

That’s not all they nicked. Opener “Metronomic Underground” utilizes bits of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and Yoko Ono’s “Mindtrain” and Don Cherry’s “Mali Doussn’Gouni” for a jam that morphs from amiable to anxious. Live, the track became a roiling headfuck of an epic that panned around the stage’s P.A. as it doubled or tripled its recorded size. “We have about five organs lying around, all plugged in and ready to go,” Tim Gane told the LA Times when the album came out, and on “Metronomic,” they all seemed to gurgle and bubble and scream at once. Singer-guitarist Mary Hansen chants “Crazy/Sturdy/A torpedo” and Sadier intones, “Untie the tangles to be vacuous, to be infinite.” The song proved that having access to everything only works if you can get it into the groove, and that marching can be dancing if you do it right.

And vice versa: First single “Cybele’s Reverie” is named for an Anatolian goddess who inspired self-castrating male devotees to hold ecstatic raves in her honor. But this reverie isn’t much of a crowd-mover; instead, it’s wistful, like a breeze over ruins with string arrangements courtesy of new Lab technician Sean O’Hagan. “What to do when we have done everything/All read, all drunk, all eaten…when we shouted on all roofs,” Sadier asks in French. Go back to the start, Hansen suggests, her pre-verbal “ba-da-bas” and “oooohs” a kind of onomatopoeic palliative.

For every rebuke of Western imperialism (“What’s society built on?” earning the chanted answer, “Blood!”), there are more personal confrontations. “Percolator” starts out urbane but quickly goes ballistic, its sophisticated point-counterpoint of organ and bass spiraling into squall as Sadier insists, “I’m very scared, that’s for sure.” Her reputation for hauteur is completely demolished by “The Noise of Carpet,” a Farfisa-driven takedown of sad-sack cynics. “I hate your state of hopelessness,” she snarls, “and that vain articulateness/You’re a loser-type wreck wannabe.” Two women, Sadier and Hanson, exorcise self-doubt with such panache in styles that alternate between egging each other on, singing different songs together, and rounding verses like ancient madrigals.

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Sometimes keyboardist Morgan Lhote would join in along while the rest of the band, including a rhythm section for the ages in bassist Duncan Brown and drummer Andy Ramsay. The unit kept things moving beneath the stereo-separated guitar strums mortared together by warm organ drones, the amalgamations of electro and lovers rock, the splashes of LaBelle and Reich. This pluralism-in-practice was the point: liner notes list all the instruments used, then all the people who played them, singling out only special guests like Tortoise’s John McEntire, who co-produced and played the vibraphone on a few songs as if, should you have a unique talent or two, you might be invited next.

“You and me are molded by some things well beyond our acknowledgment,” Sadier sings on the closing “Anonymous Collective,” again and again, her register ascending beyond rocky waves of bass and bells and tumbles of drums. For a band sometimes dismissed as merely the sum of their influences, pilfered “record-collector rock,” the album that proved they could do anything ends by offering a new way forward. It’s an invocation that honors the definitional power of pleasure yet insists on its mystery. Shuji Terayama’s tiny fascists in Tomato Kecchappu Kôtei might have fallen victim to their self-indulgence, but Stereolab had higher hopes. Pleasure might not bring capitalism down, but it can definitely lift us up.


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