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Stereolab - Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements 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.

A locked groove is that empty loop your needle gets trapped in when you leave a record on the turntable after the music has finished. Technically the record is still playing, but it’s only producing a soft, rhythmic hissing. It’s noise, but for many music lovers, the noise comes with a feeling and a history. A distinctly Stereolab flourish was to sample that repetitive hiss on “Lock-Groove Lullaby,” the last song on their second studio album, 1993’s Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements. The idea of finding romance in an incidental machine sound is Stereolab in a nutshell: As postmodern recyclers of 1960s kitsch and analog sound effects, they were never ones to let the standard definition of musicality limit their quest to invent a new and idiosyncratic kind of pop music.

Stereolab was formed in 1990 by British guitarist Tim Gane (formerly of McCarthy) and French singer Lætitia Sadier, and the band’s numbers fluctuated over the years—notably, when they gained backup singer Mary Hansen in 1992 (losing her 10 years later to a cycling accident), added drummer Andy Ramsay in 1993, and gigged and recorded with master arranger Sean O’Hagan, of the High Llamas. In 1993, they were hitting their stride, still a little mired in the heavy guitar of their early material (the 1991 EP Super-Electric is essentially indie rock) but veering toward more esoteric pastures. A series of discoveries in electronic equipment launched Gane in new compositional directions: In particular, there was a secondhand Farfisa Bravo organ bought cheap and only really suitable for two-note drones. Over the course of their long run of great studio albums, from 1992’s Peng! to 2010’s Not Music, the founding Gane-Sadier dyad (a longtime couple, though they eventually split) gradually forged a sound both unmistakable and extremely difficult to describe. Some things are ineffable: How would you describe the sound of a locked groove to somebody who has never seen an LP?

Memory is as much an instrument for Stereolab as the Moog. Using familiar reference points from the history of pop—lovely lounge melodies, old-timey grooves—Stereolab created a new model for what a song could be. Theirs have no real predetermined structure, apart from the fact that most (though not all) are under 10 minutes long. Instead of following the usual verse-chorus-verse shape, Stereolab songs are cyclical epics organized around musical phrases repeated so often they become incantatory. In this new form, the pleasant ambience of Muzak muddles with Sonic Youth-ish chugging guitar; nothing is new, but the combinations are unexpected.

Transient Random-Noise Bursts is heavier than Stereolab’s later albums, low on the playful jangle of Emperor Tomato Ketchup and high on dark, persistent grooves. “Jenny Ondioline” and “Pack Yr Romantic Mind” are the album’s standout tracks, now classics. The former is a good encapsulation of that darker vibe: It’s dirge-like at first, with a roundabout of a hook and a steady mid-tempo thump. But Sadier’s melodic line elevates what would otherwise be odd guitar rock into something sweet and singsong. “Pack Yr Romantic Mind” is less fuzzy and more tuneful; two chief melodies, split between Sadier and a synth that sounds like her robot alter ego, achieve a rare fusion of funk and minimalism.

The music is anchored by a handful of elements: Gane’s repetitive chords, synth drones, and electronic effects, unswerving motorik beats (the Neu! influence), and Sadier and Hansen’s vocals weaving prettily around it all like daisies in a hairdo. For the uninitiated, the resulting music is like nothing you’ve heard before, but also somehow something you’ve been listening to in your head your whole life.

That’s partly down to the way nostalgia activates deep, animal parts of one’s brain, and partly due to Sadier’s gorgeous and often unintelligible singing. Cocteau Twins-style, she’s wont to put the stress on a strange part of a word, changing a phrase like “The greater is the beauty” into “Tha grade ari step you tee.” The effect is to break down language, turning syllables into noises and consonants into percussion, while her voice still disguises itself as yé-yé-style pop singing. You can clearly hear on Transient Noise-Bursts that Stereolab composed via a process of live improvisation, all their different elements becoming odd but easy bedfellows through practice. Because Gane provides such a solid foundation for his collaborators to extemporize around, their contributions feel natural, almost automatic or unconscious, as if everybody was playing with their eyes closed.

It must be that pre-verbal vibe which makes Stereolab such an instinctive band. To me, “Pack Yr Romantic Mind” sounds exactly how it felt to sit in my teenage bedroom, deeply absorbed in some project as the time and space around me took on a repetitive looping aspect, old records playing in the background. Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements is Stereolab at a slightly more serious pitch than some prefer, but that lends the album a sense of rigor and strength—still joyful and surprising, just lit by a different color.

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