Stereolab is the band that defines the seemingly contradictory concept of retro-futurism. Odd elements of the past collide with visions of the future with the dream of creating a better present. Bob Moog guides the music, Karl Marx inspires the lyrics. Krautrock meets sunshine pop as lyrics switch from English to French, though the dreamy vocals make it easy to forget any content behind the loveliness. Stereolab had been doing their thing since the dawn of the 90s but it all came together with 1996's Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Led by the musical and romantic partnership of Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier, the band's lineup and sound was constantly expanding throughout the decade. The guitar-based sound of their earliest recordings was now enhanced by vintage synths, vibes, percussion, strings and other odds and ends, all combined with catchy melodies and the incomparable vocals of Sadier and the late, great Mary Hansen.
The album kicks off with "Metronomic Underground" and there couldn't be a more appropriate way to start. A simple, funky drumbeat backed by primitive electronic noises is soon joined by an infectious bassline. More and more instruments join in as well as looping vocals as the jam grows for nearly eight minutes. This is followed by the string-enhanced pop of "Cybele's Reverie," still one of the band's most popular songs. Throughout the album, the band manages to move in different directions while maintaining a distinct sound of their own. The sunshine pop of "Spark Plug" gives way to the motorik beat of "OLV 26." "The Noise of Carpet" is a guitar-based rocker that was released as a single in the U.S. It didn't burn up the charts here as it's not exactly the grunge-alternative sound that dominated radio at the time. But looking back, it fits right in with the direction bands like Radiohead were heading. The back half of the album is loaded with gems too, like the organ driven "Motoroller Scalatron" and the haunting closer "Anonymous Collective."
Stereolab continued to grow and evolve. Albums such as Dots and Loops and Sound-Dust are also excellent. Unfortunately, the group was dealt a serious blow when Mary Hansen was killed in a bicycle accident in 2002. They continued to make good music but a key spark was definitely missing. The band is now on an indefinite hiatus but has left a huge catalog of great music waiting to be discovered. Emperor Tomato Ketchup is the best place to start, then move both forwards and backwards in time, as such non-linear movement is what Stereolab is all about.- Adam Reshotko