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Stereolab - Low Fi EP 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.

In Stereolab’s first few years they released an onslaught of material—singles, full-length LPs, a mini-LP, compilation tracks. It was one of those moments in music where a band is so creative and bursting with so many ideas there simply aren’t enough places to put them all. Being a record collector’s band, Stereolab decided to scoop up their copious non-LP material and compile it. They called the collections Switched On and issued three volumes of the series in the 1990s, each longer than the last. Almost all of their most significant early songs, no matter how obscure their initial issue, found their way to one onto one of these comps.


But one release included with that initial rush has so far fallen through the cracks. The Low Fi EP, issued in September 1992, four months after Peng! and a month before the inaugural edition of Switched On, hasn’t been compiled nor is it, as of this writing, available on streaming services. But Low Fi contains 25 minutes of focused Stereolab brilliance, the distillation of the minimalist rock side of their early sound.

For most of its runtime, Low Fi is a glorious streak of pure energy, leaving aside the exotica and motorik influences to focus on stomping rock’n’roll. Structurally, the first three songs, “Low Fi,” “(Varoom!),” and “Laisser-Faire,” are all homages to the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray,” each offering a variation on that song’s immortal two-chord chug. “The idea was a combination of naïve pop melodies melded with very simple rock minimalism,” Stereolab’s Tim Gane told TapeOp in 1998, discussing the band’s m.o. around the time of Low Fi. “Our innovation was to strip everything back.”

The key to that sound here is how the guitar, Moog, and Farfisa organ become a single roaring instrument, one hell-bent on transforming electricity into noise. You can feel the voltage surging through every stretched chord, the rumble of the circuitry and the waveforms being pounded into new shapes. From their hi-fi test record of a band name on down, Stereolab positioned itself as a refinement of existing musical ideas, a collective devoted to bringing earlier sounds and styles into the present moment with the precision of scientists. The records were assembled deliberately, using complicated musical instruments that required a regular maintenance.

So one part of the band’s image was as tinkerers, people in white coats working to perfect new formulations, somewhere away from the spotlight. Their kindred spirits were bands like Kraftwerk, laboring in Kling Klang for years, waiting for technology to catch up with their vision, or Kevin Shields, obsessing endlessly about the layering of guitar feedback. Stereolab were that focused on sound, but they were also moving fast, and they wanted to convey their findings to an audience as they discovered them. Low Fi shows that side of the group. Here, it doesn’t matter if every detail is in its right place; it’s about harnessing the noise and directing it even if you can never hope to tame it, the power of chaos over the power of knowledge.

The opening title track is the most obvious VU nod, adapting the precise changes and tempo of “Sister Ray” (years after Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers borrowed it for “Roadrunner”). Floating over this thick and sticky harmonic edifice are two voices—founder Lætitia Sadier, and a newcomer, the Australia-born Mary Hansen, who would be an important part of Stereolab’s sound until her tragic death in 2002. On “Low Fi,” the fundamental ugliness of the distorted chords is thrown into sharp relief by the clear, uninflected beauty of Hansen and Saider’s vocals, as they trill wordless “la-la-la” in unison, like mischievous sisters who share a secret. Sadier’s voice has an undercurrent of weight and seriousness—Nico was a frequent point of comparison in Stereolab’s early days—while Ramsey adds a note of lightness and warmth. They are yin and yang, and when they are heard together they reach a kind of perfection.

The following “(Varoom!)” is another effortlessly catchy pop song, until it’s not: halfway through, it fades down and a delicious feedback drone emerges, the kind of dense, woozy churn of sound that seems to be collapsing and expanding simultaneously. The chords are a slight variation on those on “Low Fi”—there are still just two of them, but now they take up equal space, rocking back and forth like a seesaw or a nodding head.

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If Low Fi produced one Stereolab standard, it’s “Laisser-Faire,” a track that also exists in a brilliant version recorded at the BBC and collected on ABC Music. Once again there are only two chords, but now the pace is quicker, and Sadier’s vocals hover just above the guitars, touching down briefly with each vowel, while Hansen sounds far away, a memory of the song that unfolds at the same time as the experience of it. Though difficult to discern without a lyric sheet, the words outline a political struggle every bit as relevant in 2019 as it was in 1992: “History will only repeat itself once more/The Western world is going more and more right-wing/Yearning for some sort of protection, too scared to do anything.”

Stereolab’s political agenda was outlined by Sadier in an interview with Chickfactor shortly after the release of Low Fi: “To create a disturbance is the best way we thought of to make people and ourselves think.” Arguably the definitive early Stereolab song, “Laisser-Faire” captures all their fusion-of-opposites glory—forceful and delicate, direct and allusive, nostalgic and future-looking, crude and multi-dimensional. Low Fi stands as a tribute to a moment when Stereolab’s cup runneth over, when the songs were coming faster than they knew what to do with them.


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