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Stereolab’s essential new batch of album reissues

Blog > Stereolab’s essential new batch of album reissues

Written by Jeremy Hallock

Posted September 26, 2019

This month, Stereolab continued their seven-album reissue campaign with a second batch of expanded and remastered editions on vinyl and CD. All three of these late ’90s albums were among the top 25 best-selling vinyl records this week. If you were lucky enough to get one of the early clear vinyl editions, be sure to check your record for a scratch card because the winning lottery ticket entitles you to an exclusive Stereolab record by the end of the year. One of the most innovative and influential acts of the ’90s, Stereolab are now enjoying a victory lap of sold-out shows in support of these reissues. These new editions will inform a new generation of fans and, for devotees, each album has been remastered from the original 1/2” tapes and bonus materials include alternate takes, demos, and unreleased mixes.

From 1996, Emperor Tomato Ketchup is regarded as the band’s first masterpiece. This is easily the best of this batch of reissues and it does a remarkable job of consolidating multiple music genres like jazz, hip-hop, and dance into funky pop songs. “Metronomic Underground,” for example, samples Yoko Ono, Gil Scott-Heron, and Don Cherry. But the song is an exercise that is surprisingly straightforward and catchy before it disappears into the sounds of several organs.

There are more organs on the next tracks, “Cybele’s Reverie” and “Percolator,” which are both avant pop masterpieces with strings, manipulated horns, and the dreamy French vocals Stereolab fans adore. “Les Yper Sound” adds some abstract electronics that seem to skip and sputter out at the end of the song. “The Noise Of Carpet” is a particularly surprising entry here because it actually sounds comparable to the alternative rock of Elastica, who had singles on the charts around this time.

The Emperor Tomato Ketchup extras are mostly skeletal 4 track demos that wonderfully demonstrate the strength of the album’s songwriting. Fuzzy ’60s pop songs “Freestyle Dumpling” and “Old Lungs” are particularly strong non-album tracks, but the original mixes included here are not substantially different from what was included on the album.

From 1997, Dots and Loops embraces jazzy futurism. With John McEntire producing most of the tracks, it has his signature mix of analog and digital production and a proclivity for loops and beats. Tracks like “Brakhage” and “Miss Modular” sound very similar to indie rock from Chicago in this era, particularly McEntire’s work with The Sea and Cake and Tortoise. But the album is also inspired by mechanistic Krautrock like Neu!

“Prisoner of Mars” sounds similar to the music Stereolab was making a year earlier, but it is slower and more meditative. “Prisoners of Mars” and “Rainbo Conversation” enter space age pop territory while “Parsec” and “Ticket-tape of the Unconscious” delve into electronic experimentation.

The demos and instrumentals included as extras compliment the album well. But they still seem to have McEntire’s influence, so there are no surprises or hints of other directions the band was considering for Dots and Loops.

1999’s Cobra and Phase Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night is not as highly regarded as Sterolab’s other albums from this era and it is certainly less poppy and not as cohesive as their previous works. The music here occasionally sounds scatterbrained enough to leave listeners feeling empty-headed. It almost seems like Stereolab took sounds from their last few albums and put them in a blender. And most of what came out is far less catchy and much more difficult to dance to than the songs fans fell in love with on Emperor Tomato Ketchup.

Tracks like “Fuses,” “The Free Design,” and “Blips and Drips and Strips” all seem more like noisy processes than songs. But “People Do It All The Time” is a great psychedelic pop song straight out of the ’60s and “The Spiracles” sounds like French pop from Burt Bacharach.

Cobra and Phase Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night may be more abstract than its predecessors, but it is still essential Stereolab from the group’s best era. And the supplemental material on this reissue is particularly strong. There are five unreleased tracks here and the demos are wonderful acoustic renditions that sound comparable to straightforward ’60s French singer-songwriter offerings from the likes of Françoise Hardy.