STEREOLAB Peng! (Too Pure)

Having been mildly chafed by Peter Jolly in the last issue of "Feedback" for my mild chafing of Stereolab’s latest album, "Dots And Loops", I’m pleased to report that I have nothing but glowing praise to shower on this, a recently acquired copy of their debut from 1992.

In their early days Stereolab sounded a little like a fluffy, cuddly, sumptuously upholstered version of early Joy Division, Wire or Velvet Underground (Joe Dilworth’s metronomic drumming is a dead ringer for Mo Tucker’s tubthumping style). Here be catchy, hummable melodies drowning in gallons of Farfisa and Moog embellishment, two of which - "Orgiastic" and "Peng! 33" - seem to have, unwittingly or otherwise - become the template for just about every good Stereolab song ever since. The lyrics are still the usual impenetrable philosophy and politicking - check out catchy lines such as "True life embodying pleasure principle’s noblest triumph/Over the cowering mendacity of bourgeois Christian civilisation" - but it’s not too hard to ignore the message and just treat them as shapes for Ms Sadier’s angel frosting voice to articulate, a la Liz Fraser.

In my humble opinion, "Peng!" is Stereolab’s finest work, because it’s their purest, the closest approach to the original sound, unpolluted by the loungecore, jazz and drum ‘n’ bass fads that have shortened the shelf life of some of their later albums. And there’s something novel about a ‘proper’ Stereolab album that manages to break into your head, rearrange your mental furniture and exit gracefully in under fifty minutes.

STEREOLAB Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements (Duophonic)

O.K., I'll admit that I'm attracted to any album that can call itself "Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements" and expect to get away with it, but seeing that the cover had a turntable on it and reading that it lifted samples from old test records was enough to have me handing over my shekels...and I'm far from disappointed.

Stereolab are a six-piece band with a vocalist who sings alternately in French, English, both and possibly neither. (The lyrics to some of the songs are conveniently printed on the back cover, since Laetitia Sadier's Nico impression is too impenetrable to make head or tail of what she sings). They play a strange mutation of (to my ears) prime Kraftwerk and mid-80's Fall at their most obstreperous. For about half the album it works very well indeed: "Tone Burst", "Pack Yr Romantic Mind", "I'm Going Out Of My Way" and "Crest" are so different and fresh that they can't help but be exciting, and the single "Jenny Ondioline" is good too, if a bit ramblesome at over eighteen minutes and a side of vinyl. It's only when they try to out-experiment themselves that boredom and/or confusion sets in, on "Golden Ball" and "Pause" for example. However, it's all a question of acclimatization, and a few more listens will no doubt help to sort things out. Finally, a sample of their wisdom in the form of the entire lyrics to "Crest": "If there's been a way to build it/There'll be a way to destroy it/Things are not all that out of control". Deep or what?

STEREOLAB Mars Audiac Quintet (Duophonic)

Right from the opening Moog and drum assault we're (well, I'm, at least) in familiar territory. The Stereolab sound has been honed to perfection over their last few albums and "Mars Audiac Quintet" possesses it by the flight-caseload: light, continental female vocals hover over a distinctly earth-bound backing of elderly synthesizers and Mo Tucker-esque metronomic percussion. No other band on the planet can do it, because no other band on the planet would want to try: it sounds like a late-1950s impression of What Music Will Be Like In The Future. Nevertheless, Planet Stereolab is still a fun place to be, especially when they're showing off their new trick, which would appear to be writing the perfect esoteric popular song. They perform it twice on "Mars Audiac Quintet": "Ping Pong", the first single, is a joyously bouncy tune of the like that the presently dumper-destined Saint Etienne would give all their tiger tokens to be able to write; sadly all its commercial chances were sabotaged by being shackled to a lyric about how wars affect economic prosperity. "International Colouring Contest" is equally sublime, and discusses how instruments sound different when recorded on the moon (and I wouldn't bet that Stereolab aren't speaking from experience).

"I'm so full of ideas, and here is a good one" gurgles Laetitia Sadier at one point. She's only half-wrong: there's far more than one good idea on "Mars Audiac Quintet", but whether there's a double-album-ful is, sadly, open to some debate.

STEREOLAB Music For The Amorphous Body Study Center (Duophonic)

Sometimes it seems like the whole purpose of Stereolab’s existence is to have the piss taken out of them. Exhibit a: the sleevenotes (when was the last time you bought an album that had sleevenotes on it, fergawdsake?!) of their latest opus, this 10" mini-album soundtrack to sculptor Charles Long’s recent New York exhibition: "Like a mountain fed spring, a new pattern of sounds enters the world for the very first time. As the listener drinks in this music, it lives within them and becomes part of their lives and in some way is passed on in yet another form as it leaves that body" etc. etc. Exhibit b: the pictures of Charles Long’s work that adorn the sleeve, chiefly pink and blue fluffy spheres with headphones attached to them. Exhibit c: songs that have titles such as "How To Play Your Internal Organs Overnight", and a preponderance of French lyrics. Is this really how rock stars should behave?

Well, it’s not in The Manual, but Stereolab aren’t much of a band for reading instructions. There are seven tracks on this limited edition release, most of which play ball with familiar Stereolabtypes. "Pop Quiz", for example, is wrought from the same spangly material that made last year’s "Ping Pong" single so addictive, here swamped with lots of fashionable easy-listening appeal. "Melochord Seventy-Five" is a restrained version of the Krautrock experimentalism that spawned "We’re Not Adult Orientated" some years back. Elsewhere a string section lifts "How To Play Your Internal Organs Overnight" into an even fluffier and lovelier atmosphere.

The whole seems greater than the parts: start analysing it and you might tumble to the conclusion that there’s very little of substance here. But like your favourite flavour of blancmange, Stereolab are best appreciated in small doses, which might explain why their mini-albums, such as 1993’s "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music", leave a pleasanter aftertaste than their more full- (or over-?) blown works. Kitsch and disposable, yes, but none the worse for it.

 STEREOLAB Refried Ectoplasm (Switched On Volume 2) (Duophonic Ultra High Frequency Disks)

The third Stereolab long-playing release in twelve months, "Refried Ectoplasm" collates, on suave amber vinyl within an absurdly cheap-looking cardboard folder, stacks of rare and unreleased tracks originally recorded between 1992 and 1994: songs that surfaced through such esoteric channels as joint tour singles with Unrest, or limited edition 7" with free sticks of bubblegum; it’s a real indie trainspotter’s miniature record fair.

Like much of Stereolab’s output, great swathes of "Refried Ectoplasm" could be accused - quite rightly - of being formulaic; chugging Moog and Farfisa riffs that make Status Quo look like Frank Zappa, with relentlessly MoTuckeresque ‘drumming’ underneath and Laetitier Sadier gurgling over the top, usually in French. And when they aren’t performing by numbers the painful experimentalism of the side-long Nurse With Wound collaboration, "Animal Or Vegetable (A Wonderful Wooden Reason...)" or the unlistenably corny country and western take on "Tone Burst" invoke feelings of nostalgia in the listener for when they are. But also like much of Stereolab’s output, "Refried Ectoplasm" contains one or two nuggets of pure genius, and here they take the form of the surprise dancefloor smash (no, really) "French Disko", and the pretty wondrous "John Cage Bubblegum", which both add grist to the theory that one day Stereolab could release a spectacularly poppy compilation. But in the meantime, perched rather precariously between stubbornness, whimsy and perfection, "Refried Ectoplasm" will do very well.

STEREOLAB Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Duophonic UHF Disks)

Yet another Stereolab album - their sixth in three years - another double, with another ridiculous Unique Selling Point (glitter vinyl!). However, unlike the last few of their full-length works "Emperor Tomato Ketchup" is more than the usual two killer tunes buried amidst a dozen maybes - this time round they’ve gone funky! Maybe not in the glitter-ball and white flared suit sense, but there’s definitely a danceable element to tracks like "Metronomic Underground", with its nagging bass riff and insistent ‘dubadum’ vocals - Stereolab had mastered easy listening before it was ironic, remember, never mind before it was hip. Recent single "Cybele’s Reverie" is a string-drenched wonder, while future classics like "Les Yper-Sound" and "Spark Plug" make a dash for the dancefloor when they think nobody’s watching.

The lyrics (those that are in English, anyway, since Laetitia Sadier still insists in singing in French half the time) are the usual edifying lectures on project management, politics and philosophy, whilst the instrumentation still relies heavily on creaky old analogue synths and organs. But the rhythms are nowhere near as metronomic as before: they’ve located a few grams of groove from somewhere, and intend to use it! "Emperor Tomato Ketchup" is, in my opinion, Stereolab’s most rounded and cohesive album: it brings the variety of their shorter works such as "Music For The Amorphous Body Study Center" and "Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music" to bear over the course of four sides of vinyl, and whilst it never attains the perfect pop heights of back-catalogue faves like "Ping Pong" it certainly knows how to party.

STEREOLAB Dots And Loops (Duophonic Ultra High Frequency Disks)

Stereolab’s seventh album may well be (or have been, by now) the release to garner them thousands of adoring new fans after the relative success of the "Miss Modular" single, but the question must be, why now? Certainly there’s been a perceptible lightening in their sound over the last few years, great strides in that direction undoubtedly being a function of hanging out with bands like the wonderful Tortoise and Mouse On Mars (members of both play on and produce parts of "Dots And Loops"), but it was still a shock to hear the ‘Lab’s "Metronomic Underground" plonked on the beginning of the recent "Twin Town" film. Maybe it’s because, after years of claiming to be ‘the in sound from way out’, popular music and culture have finally caught up with them - take the whole easy listening cult as an example: Stereolab first did loungecore on the 1993 "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music" mini-album, and they’ve been dabbling with it in various degrees ever since.

Perhaps that’s why, to me at least, "Dots And Loops" sounds a little underwhelming. Coming hot on the heels of the Turn On project its jazzy influences are no surprise, but the gentle surges of drum ‘n’ bass that wash under tracks like "Brakhage" and "Parsec" seem desperate where once they’d be inspired. "Miss Modular" may have been a genuine pop hit but its Anglia TV ident horns are no match for genuine old school three minute Stereolab classics like "Ping Pong" or "French Disko". On top of which, for once their (rigorously disciplined, admittedly) eclecticism results in an album that lacks focus: if you want to make perfect, if sterile, pop whither side-long would-be epics called "Refractions In The Plastic Pulse"? And if you want to make side-long epics called "Refractions In The Plastic Pulse" why bother smacking up the singles chart with frothy little Franglais numbers?

It would be wrong to say that "Dots And Loops" is a bad album. If you hadn’t heard a Stereolab album before and picked up on it on the strength of the single the chances are that you’d be greatly charmed by it. But I reckon it would smack of double standards to berate Oasis for churning out lowest common denominator Noelrock by rote and not mildly chafe Stereolab for the inevitability of yet another double album pressed on bizarrely coloured vinyl (one green, one white this time round) with a sleeve that looks like it came straight out of the fabric pages of a 1972 Habitat catalogue. For once time and tastes are moving faster than the groop are, and if they continue to tread water like this they’ll be in danger of looking genuinely retro.

STEREOLAB Aluminum Tunes (Duophonic)

"Aluminum Tunes" is the third volume of Stereolab’s limited edition anthologising of some of their even more limited-edition output, some of which originally appeared on mini-albums, tour singles and other more specialised sources. Housed in a sleeve made from, uh, aromatic cardboard you’ll find three albums’ worth of this stuff (if you’re me, or two CDs of it if you’re not...)

Following their last, in my opinion below par, album "Dots And Loops", "Aluminum Tunes" is a surprisingly listenable reaffirmation of their influences (Neu!, first-time-around loungecore and film soundtracks) and restatement of the way that, when they’re really cooking, Stereolab can take such source material and scale galactic heights with it.

The first side is devoted entirely to the music they wrote for Charles Long’s "Amorphous Body Study Center" exhibition (which seemed to consist chiefly of brightly coloured soft furniture with headphones plugged into them), which was originally released as a mini-album in 1995. Happily, this is Stereolab at their peak, all fluffy melodies and sly humour (one track is entitled "How To Play Your Internal Organs Overnight"). More greatness can be found in the form of "Speedy Car", a song apparently warning of the dangers of speed cameras, which sounds like "Draughtsman’s Contract"-period Michael Nyman gone all Krautrock. "One Note Samba/Surfboard" begins as a cover of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s early Sixties loungecore classic (no stranger to Stereolab albums, they sampled it on "Random Transient Noise Bursts With Announcements") before enjoying new adventures in wibbleyness, powered by some wonderful jazz flute playing by Herbie Mann, the most human/humane sound on the entire album. The other cover, Roy Budd’s theme music for "Get Carter", might be a little obvious (after all, The Human League did it 17 years ago) but is almost as much fun. The whole kit caboodle eases to a halt with a brace of classics: Luke Vibert’s minimal, squidgetastic remix of "Metronomic Underground" and the John McEntire-produced "The Incredible He Woman", a tale of gender bending that even the likes of Boy George couldn’t fabricate.

If, like me, you thought that Stereolab had become somewhat derailed of late, "Aluminum Tunes" is heartening evidence to the contrary.

STEREOLAB Switched On (Too Pure)

"Switched On" is a welcome reissue of Stereolab’s 1992 compilation, itself a welcome reissue of the band’s first three hard-to find singles, one of which was jocularly titled "Stunning Debut Album". This early line-up included, as well as the ever-present Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier, NME journalist Gina Morris, photographer and Faith Healer Joe Dilworth (immortalised in song by Saint Etienne), Martin Kean, formerly a guitarist with New Zealand band The Chills and, on stage, various members of Moose. Such eclecticism was reflected in the Stereolab sound, which mated the grinding Krautrock repetition of bands like Neu! and Kraftwerk with Velvets-inspired experimentation and Philip Glass-style minimalism. Unfortunately, whilst always interesting, these early works aren’t particularly memorable, predating the band’s acquaintance with the concept of rattling good tunes, first spotted in their parish around the time of their debut album proper, "Peng!". But so what: the relentless collectability that tends to swarm around sporadically available Stereolab artefacts like this makes "Switched On" more than worth acquiring, and as the roots of the slick post-rock beast some of us know and love today it’s never less than interesting listening. Just don’t expect to be humming the tunes on the way home.

STEREOLAB Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night (Duophonic)

Stereolab's latest long player continues their slide away from the excellence of 1996's "Emperor Tomato Ketchup" and leadenly reinforces their currently rut-bound approach to music-making. Last time around on "Dots And Loops" their pounding Neu! drone-rock was spiced by the lightest dusting of drum 'n' bass: "Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night" doffs its beret to the free space jazz of Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and late period Coltrane in an ever so slightly sly and mannered manner. That aside, absolutely everything about this album is as you would expect, from the indentikit Stereolab song titles ("Infinity Girl", "Puncture In The Radar Permutation", "Strobo Acceleration") to the unbearably retro sci-fi sleeve design and migraine-inducing typography. Admittedly they do veer towards occasional loveliness - the string-section frosted "The Emergency Kisses", for example - but such moments arrive too late to enliven yet another stereotypical Stereolab album. Once upon a time their music was drunk with its own possibilities, and their short-form works glistened with the band's mischievous joy at the noises they were making. Now it's just art for art's sake, a chilly, soulless listening experience with all life sucked out of it by the fact that the media have done ironic kitsch to death and have now moved on. Maybe Stereolab should too.

STEREOLAB The First Of The Microbe Hunters (Duophonic UHF)

Yet another Stereolab long-player, "The First Of The Microbe Hunters" purports to be a mini-album (albeit one that still occupies four sides of vinyl), and consists of six tracks recorded earlier this year and one ("I Feel The Air (Of Another Planet)") rescued from the 1997 sessions for the "Dots And Loops" album, which were overseen by Tortoise's John McEntire.

The side-long opener, "Outer Bongolia", is a cracker, a bouncy instrumental that rattles along at a frenetic pace without actually going anywhere. Nevertheless it's a squidgetastic delight, and the most energetic Stereolab have sounded for years. The remainder of the album, however, reverts to the dreary and unmemorable type that has cast a pallor over most of their output since the fast-receding memory of their last unqualifiedly good album, "Emperor Tomato Ketchup". Early synth machinery wheezes and clanks, Laetitia croons and before you know it 30 minutes have passed without anything memorable occurring. "Outer Bongolia" clearly demonstrates why Stereolab still matter: the six tracks that follow successfully argue the case for why they don't.

STEREOLAB Sound-Dust (Duophonic Ultra High Frequency Disks)

Stereolab have been gradually drifting further from relevance over the last half-decade. Recent long players have seen the band seemingly content to shackle spillage from whatever flavour-of-the-month bandwagon was galloping through town that week, be it dustings of drum and bass or lashings of loungecore, to their plunderings from the Neu! back catalogue. Meanwhile, the rest of the world finally caught up and surpassed the band, leaving their music looking distinctly old-fashioned.

Happily, "Sound-Dust" (and what are the chances of that title being a sly reference to the sendust material used in the manufacture of tape deck heads?) reverses this previously-presumed-unstoppable slide. It marks a return to the pastel marshmallow fluffiness that marked their finest moments from the dim and distant past, for example the "Music For The Amorphous Body Study Center" mini-album. These dozen tracks are delicately frosted with tiny delights, be they the pedal steel guitar that slides all over the single "Captain Omnichord" (its luscious timbre carrying shades of Frank Zappa's "It Might Just Be A One-Shot Deal") or the almost love story that is "The Black Ants", which hints, possibly for the first time on a Stereolab album, at real hearts and blood beating behind their meticulously engineered facade. And if there has to be a comparative catch-all for this new Stereolab sound, how about calling it a mix of the Modern Jazz Quartet (the tinkling waterfalls of tuned percussion instruments are a dead give-away) and prime Burt Bacharach (who has to be the source of the burping brass and twanging bass that are all over this album).

Other observations: there are no tortuous side-long multi-part prog/Krautrock epics to negotiate this time around. Even the cover artwork is a refreshing change from their habit of continually regurgitating early 70s Habitat catalogues, its shades of chalky pink and green apparently coming from a 1967 poster design by Onegin Dabrowski. And they snaffle only the finest in contemporary culture by lassooing text from high priest of dark comedy Chris Morris' seminal "Jam" television series for the lyrics of "Nothing To Do With Me" - there's something irresistibly priceless about the sound of Laetitia Sadier gurgling the lines "You're not a doctor/You're a wanker"!

"Sound-Dust" might not be the greatest thing since bread came sliced, but it's certainly the finest Stereolab long player to trickle this way since the glory days of "Emperor Tomato Ketchup", far too many years ago. If you've struggled with the po-faced monotony of much of their recent output, now might be the time to tune in again. And as it says on the back cover of this immaculately produced and pressed album, "This LP was mastered directly from the analogue master tapes using an advanced head and consequently no digital processes were involved at all. Honest.". At last, Stereolab sound like the future once more, and that's a cause for some small celebration.

STEREOLAB/DERRERRO Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff 31 January 2002

Having had the venue for this gig shunted around Cardiff since its original place and time of The Coal Exchange and 12 December, Clwb Ifor Bach turns out to be a moderately sized upstairs room with a low stage that looks a little cramped to accommodate the current Stereolab sextet and the racks of equipment the elaborately upholstered machine music of their albums would suggest they travel with. But first to test the water are, I assume, Derrerro - they didn't announce themselves, and the only reference to their name was a poster above the merchandise table announcing that their album was on sale there. This quartet played an enjoyable amalgam of Stereolab-style primitive synthesis and Coldplay-esque restrained moping, with a suggestion of on some songs, even grasping at the celestial raiments of "Surf's Up"-era Beach Boys in places, which is a very good (and ambitious) thing indeed. The first of tonight's equipment gremlins seemed to strike at their drum machine, which went a bit waywardly improvisational. "We're gonna carry on without the technology", and they did, with no loss of momentum. Their penultimate song (no name given) had three distinctive melodies all to itself (most support bands these days seem to think that one per song is being overly generous), raging outbreaks of spiked glam rock and a feedback frenzy to finish. It was the standout, admittedly, but enough of one to suggest that Derrerro might one day be capable of truly great things.

More equipment gremlins blighted the beginning of Stereolab's set, Laetitia Sadier mumbling something in her delectable Franglais accent about how they should have bought better quality kit, and that they were "replacing the DI, to keep you informed". DI successfully replaced, they lunged into "Nothing To Do With Me", and I breathe a sigh of relief at actually being able to recognise the tune. Sporadically fantastic band though Stereolab might be, revisiting their back catalogue prior to the gig had me trawling through vast quantities of vinyl that I honestly couldn't recall a note of, the "Dots And Loops" and "Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night" albums being particularly persistent offenders. But "Nothing To Do With Me" is all familiar, bouncy brilliance, made especially excellent by taking as its text the scripts of Chris Morris' matchless dark comedy series "Jam". Next they play "Les Yper-Sound" (and it has just taken me twenty minutes of trawling through Stereolab albums auditioning likely suspects to pin a title on the tune), and you can forgive them anything for this glorious summary of everything they’re great at in three minutes: chugging, robotic Krautrock, creaky old jumble sale keyboards and Laetitia gurgling daft lyrics about flags and teams whilst Mary Hansen does that curiously frosted doo-wop thing with the harmonies. "Captain Easychord" follows, an object lesson in how to craft a multi-part epic that lasts one side of a single rather than a whole side of an album: think of a fluffier "Paranoid Android" constructed using FuzzyFelts and crayons.

And so on, the evening oscillating between the naggingly familiar but ultimately unplaceable (three songs started out by threatening to turn into "The Free Design": none of them did) and the gloriously essential (a fabulous thrash through "Ping Pong", still their bestest tune even after all these years). After an hour or so they briefly left the stage, returning to lay the room to waste with a marvellous, pulsating "French Disko" that slithered effortlessly into a version of "Metronomic Underground" (arguably their most widely heard tune, having appeared on the soundtrack of forgotten Welsh "Trainspotting" cash-in "Twin Town") seemingly sponsored by Railtrack, that fell apart fabulously in a clatter of screeching synths, feedback and cataclysmic Velvets-style chaos.

It has taken me eight years to finally get to see Stereolab in concert, and it was pretty much a worthwhile wait. They're still defiantly a band apart, committed to their art and heart-warmingly humble and gracious to their fans at the same time. It was only when I noticed a trombone being ferried through the audience that I realised that the band had left the stage - possibly out of necessity - by walking through the crowd! The next night they were scheduled to play at the Royal Festival Hall, where arrangements are probably a little more commodious, a pointer to the band's rarefied yet broad appeal, swerving from bouncy Welsh indie kids to plush Mojo-sponsored seriousness in 24 hours. A night like this reminds the sceptical of why we need Stereolab, to add a glint of carefully refracted colour to an indie scene that can sometimes get a little too meat and potatoes for its own good.

STEREOLAB ABC Music (Strange Fruit)

abcmusic.jpg.jpg (21263 bytes)"ABC Music" is the first Stereolab release to attempt to address the entirety of their dozen year career. In the band's typically perverse fashion it does so through the medium of Radio 1 Sessions, here containing the results of nine visits to the BBC's studios for John Peel, Mark Radcliffe and the Evening Session.

In the absence of any competing overviews "ABC Music" makes an excellent primer on the band's work. It’s refreshing to be reminded of how the band seemed to arrive fully formed, their trademark sound already well-developed even on the earliest recordings presented here. "Super Electric", from 1991, has the motorik rhythms, the creaky old synths and the gurgled Franglais female vocals that have practically defined the band's work ever since, a formula they never deviated from so much as gently, fragrantly refined, for example the Bacharach-on-a-philosophy-course bounce of "Doubt". So it goes, ominously prescient (the line, from "Laissez Faire", "Within ten years we'll have a war") and bounding with frothy loveliness ("Peng 33"). "John Cage Bubblegum" is possibly the apotheosis of this early phase, its title pretty much defining the groop's sound at the time.

Two contrasting versions of "Wow And Flutter" are featured: the first, taped in September 1993, has a lightness which eludes the plodding album version. And listen to the divine "French Disko"'s guitar solo, "White Light/White Heat"-era Lou Reed meets Vini Reilly. "International Colouring Contest" is practically pregnant with frothy, candy-flavoured loveliness - it's not all metronomic Krautrock around here, you know! Well, not quite. The ever-welcome, "Twin Town"-topping "Metronomic Underground" is a slithery funk bubblebath, and "Les Yper Sound" is this collection's undoubted highlight: a thunderously, crashingly great piece of music, sweet and twee, irresistibly poppy and daft as a brush. "Heavenly Van Halen" is lovely from its title inward - apparently released as the more prosaically monikered "Pinball" I can find no reference to it in any Stereolab discography. "Cybele's Reverie" is, like much of the "Emperor Tomato Ketchup" material visited here, equally gorgeous. Their Chris Morris collaboration, "Nothing To Do With Me", also reappears, still right at the cutting edge of the Krautrock/dark comedy interface.

So, there "ABC Music" is: if you suspect you might have some sneaky feelings for the kind of music Stereolab make, but have never felt them strongly enough to lash out on one of their wildly unpredictable studio albums, in the absence of a comprehensive single disc starter's guide culled from their regular work it's the perfect introduction to the groop. And if you're a Stereolab enthusiast, your rampant collector's instincts mean you'll almost certainly have bought this album already.

STEREOLAB Oscillons From The Anti-Sun (Duophonic UHF Disks)

Maybe it’s nothing more than Stereolab shuffling the expected pastel-coloured pack of influences, but from the moment “Fluorescences” pipes up – glorious Franglais pop froth, luxuriant bubbling Bacharach horns, sample lyric: “I looked at the sun through filters” – you’ll forgive this tiny box set anything. Which is fortuitous, because, unusually for a Stereolab product, there are myriad potential sources of frustration with “Oscillons From The Anti-Sun”. It essentially collects, plus or minus, the contents of the eight EPs they released on Duophonic between 1993 and 1999. A DVD presents the accompanying promo films, plus sundry other televisual merriment, and the original sleeve artwork is reproduced in the form of stickers, which of course no self-respecting packaging-fetishising Stereolab fan is ever going to peel. They could always buy another just for that purpose, though: I picked my copy of this 3 CD/1 DVD box set up for a bargainatious 10.99, or a little over a quarter of what Amazon would currently relieve you of in exchange for Nirvana’s similarly configured “With The Lights Out” box set. But of course it would be too simple to programme the album chronologically: tracks from the EPs are scattered apparently randomly across the three discs, and the alphabetical key employed to match each song with its source is, to say the least, user-ambivalent. Also, unlike the continuing and separate “Switched On” series of rarities anthologies, duplications with contemporanous albums abound. And of course it’s still not the one-stop Stereolab primer that the Radio 1 sessions collection “ABC Music” also came within a whisker of being. The market for a lovingly assembled single disc retrospective (Rhino, why not step up to the plate?) remains untapped. None of which should detract from the observation that “Oscillons From The Anti-Sun” is the indie bargain of the year, nosing ahead of Yo La Tengo’s “Prisoners Of Love” compilation considered below.

To the music, finally. “Pinball” is a highlight from the “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” era, a particularly fertile time melodically for the groop. There are two versions of the astounding economics primer “Ping Pong”, making the dismal science danceable for three minutes at a time. “Cybele’s Reverie” is fragrant, luxuriant loungecore pop, foreign and friendly, and the tripartite “Nihilist Assault Group” runs the gamut from junkshop Eno ambience to fluffy but furious Detroit wigout. The bleeping and whooshing of “Off On” sounds like Kraftwerk’s studio when the robots are left to their own devices, suffused with traces of lush, verdant tropicalia.

“Jenny Ondioline” provides the opportunity to salute the vintage freshness of early Stereolab – ah, the idealistic droning, the gradual shrugging off of their Neu!-inspired roots. With its plunking bass, synthesised jangle piano and sonorous pedal steel, “Captain Easychord” has an entirely different 70s thing going on. The fuzzy, crashing brilliance of “French Disco” explains Stereolab to new listeners in three delirious minutes, and the twinkling pop pastiche of “Canned Candies” suggests Tortoise and Saint Etienne collaborating on a French language remake of The Zombies’ “Odessey & Oracle”.

Who wouldn’t find themselves powerless to resist the steam-driven fuzzy warbles of “The Noise Of Carpet”, presented here in – be still my beating heart! – US single form, or the Dave Brubeck-in-space alien time signatures of “The Free Design”? “Les Yper Yper Sound” is another revision of a hardy perennial, elongating the chugging opening section of the sublime “Les Yper Sound” but foolishly dispensing with the gorgeous gorgeousity that formerly followed it. “Heavy Denim”, perhaps unsurprisingly, betrays a li’l Quo boogie influence, whilst “Soop Groove #1” is 13 minutes spent at the exact point where loungecore meets Krautrock.

The promo videos captured on the DVD display the expected low-budget invention also found in the contemporaneous works of Warp Records – lots of close-ups of elderly electronics and tower block flats decorated as a lysergic extension of the 1972 Habitat catalogue. You’ll smile, you’ll admire their ecological good sense in fracturing several videos from exactly the same idea, and you’ll be gently massaged by some of the most huggable, cerebral pop music of recent times. As a bonus, you can also watch a performance of “French Disko” on “The Word”, a programme so desperately now! that it can’t help looking hopelessly then! these days. Normally the appearance of Lord of Smug Jools Holland on my television is enough to have me throwing things at it/him, but repressing the urge led me to “Later” takes of “Cybele’s Reverie” and “Les Yper Sound”, both suffused with a lantern glow of loveliness.

On reflection, scratch those earlier observations lamenting the continued absence of a Stereolab beginner’s guide from the marketplace. “Oscillons From The Anti-Sun” captures everything that’s brilliant, cherishable and frustrating about the band, and at staggeringly little expense. Having floated (or waded, depending on your disposition) through these four discs you should have little trouble deciding which side of the divide you’re on.

STEREOLAB Instant O In The Universe (Duophonic Ultra High Frequency Disks)

Stereolab’s first release following Mary Hansen’s death in a cycling accident in late 2002 – the sleeve carries the dedication “Mary, thinking about you” - “Instant O In The Universe” is a five track sliver of a half-album that finds the band operating pretty much as normal. It contains their usual frothy, bubbly, fluffy avant-garde music that nevertheless remains determinedly aloof. The likes of ““… Suddenly Stars”” and “Jaunty Monty And The Bubble Of Silence” sound softened compared to the cutting edges of their previous long player, “Sound-Dust”, anticipating the more diverse avenues of their next full length, “Margerine Eclipse”. Only “Mass Riff” gently surprises, dropping a measure of “Saturday Night Fever” funk into their more familiar ornate Krautronica. In sum, “Instant O In The Universe” makes for a pleasant, but hardly planet-shattering, 20 minutes.





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