Late summer’s shadows and light fall distinctively. Their angles start to sharpen keenly around the middle of August, and they are deeply ingrained as portents from childhood. In their way, shadows provide a natural warning while light holds a natural promise, (oh, delicious anticipation!) They combine to signal the ending of summertime’s freedoms and the beginning of something else.
Didn’t you always love the summer? The way the light touches the trees and flowers in the mornings, almost begging to be thanked – “I think you are sensational, Tree. Thank you for smiling back at me.”
I always have loved summer, but I loved school too, especially the beginning of a new grade, (except the second grade – that can be another story.) There was wistfulness in saying goodbye to summer that was tempered by all the possibilities that a “new year” hinted at. We take our new beginnings where we can find them and I always get a new beginning from late summer’s intoxicating concoction of abandon and restraint – it gets to me, and I appreciate that I am still rumbling forward, slightly lightheaded.The promise and warning of late summer’s light and shadow.
The experimental music of the band Stereolab is perfect for this time of year, accentuating the electrifying assimilation of sounds that come from combining restraint and abandon. And for me, they also captured the sound of the beginning of something. It is art approached with urgency and patience — structure, discipline, and improvisation, (think of an aerialist running at full speed on a tightrope across a mountain chasm.) The result is music for the beginning of something at any season and for many occasions.
The band has been a gigantic favorite for 20+ years. It is surprising to find how little has been written about them on this page, and how few of their great songs have been featured here. But Stereolab has been back in heavy rotation through speakers and headphones recently. Ideal music for a late summer walk.
Stereolab’s sound evolved and was always unmistakable. They managed somehow to make original rock that was hugely referential and incorporated broad influences across multiple genres and eras. There are elements of 1970s German electronica, 1950s and 60s Mexican lounge, French and English chanteuses, and American pop ranging from Bacharach to the Beach Boys to The Velvet Underground.
They strived to constantly refresh their music, to sound new and different from anyone else. In doing so, they amassed an ambitious list of collaborators. These collaborations along with a wealth of ideas led to a prolific outpouring of music, not only from their main project as Stereolab, but also from a fantastic bunch of guest artist appearances (with Atlas Sound, Blur, and Mouse on Mars, to name a few,) side projects (like Monade and Cavern of Anti-Matter,) and offshoots (the tremendous High Llamas). And Stereolab’s influence on other bands is difficult of overestimate.
Multi-instrumentalists Laeticia Sadier and Mary Hansen were right up front, anchoring the band’s signature vocal sound, providing dreamy counterparts and harmonies with plentifully sung “la las”, and lyrics in French and English. Guitarist Tim Gane was instrumental in developing and pushing their innovations forward, but stayed in the background when they played their explosive, sometimes deafening live shows. One of the great rock concert thrills in my memory is watching Gane break a couple of his guitar strings during a feverish ascent into white noise. The strings cut open a gash on his hand, yet he never hesitated and continued to play at max effort and volume with a bloodied paw. Likewise, Andy Ramsay’s propulsive and precise live drumming comes back to me when I listen to the studio recordings.
So here we are, at the beginning of something. Embrace the precious promise — soak in and store the pouring light of the late summer’s sun — and take a listen to some great tunes below — whether they are new to you or if you are revisiting this hugely influential band. All songs by Stereolab. As usual, italicized underlined song titles below are clickable to listen to and to view.
Among their many great releases, the LP Dots and Loops especially always sounded to me like the beginning of something….
Brakhage from Dots and Loops (1997 Elektra).
International Colouring Contest from Mars Audiac Quintet (1994 Elektra).
Wow and Flutter from Mars Audiac Quintet (1994 Elektra).
Nothing To Do With Me from Sound Dust (2001 Elektra).
Orgiastic from Peng! (1992 Too Pure).
Percolator from Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996 Elektra).
Pack Yr Romantic Mind from Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements (1993 Elektra).
Avant Garde M.O.R. from The Groop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (1993 Too Pure).
Ronco Symphony from The Groop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music (1993 Too Pure).
Stereolab has been on an indefinite hiatus for years. Meanwhile, the members pursue their various other projects. The songs above are from what I think is their best vintage, from their inception through the years with Sean O’Hagan, and Mary Hansen.