A brief revisionist history: imagine the various artists who rose to prominence in the mid-1990s in the UK placed into a league table a-la fantasy football*. While the lower and middle portions will vary, the top four is always the same when looking in the rear-view mirror, their position down purely to personal taste but there is a quartet that stand above all others. With few exceptions, to conquer both the charts and the critics during this time, bands were required to venerate a select few influences – The Beatles, The Kinks, mod revival, 2-Tone – and not much more. A recording contract would soon follow. What is old is new again with the 30-year pop culture cycle in full effect; Geoff Hurst’s linesman traded for Paul Gascoigne’s dentist chair. Only 4 years previously, around 1992, an entirely different wave of artists were making their presence known under the banner of Britpop (at this point a shorthand, rather than a subgenre) and on the cusp of greatness, taking cues and influences all across British (and European) pop music history. Along with The Auteurs, Saint Etienne and Denim**, Stereolab were viewed as outliers and innovators, receiving critical acclaim while being completely out-of-step with the charts of the time- Stereolab infamously receiving a 0/10 for 1999’s Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night in the NME). Rising from the ashes of C86 class-warriors McCarthy (an incredibly underrated band in their own right, well overdue a reappraisal), Tim Gane and Lætitia Sadier dramatically changed their musical sound to a continental blend of Krautrock, lounge, Yé-yé and exotica while keeping their sharp lyrical rhetoric and willingness to experiment and subvert. Stereolab are currently in the middle of a full career reissue campaign, and this Manchester date, delayed from June due to illness within the band- comes with huge amounts of anticipation.
Support comes courtesy of Mush, a Leeds quartet with a sound that could best be described as Neu! and The Strokes put through Seth Brundle’s teleportation pods. Propulsive rhythm anchoring sharp-as-a-tack chopped guitars and the affected, somewhat deadpan vocal tone (occasionally straying into Tom Verlaine territory) of frontman Dan Hyndman. Mush certainly look the part and carry themselves with confidence, but importantly have the musical chops to back it up. This is the cool kids’ table, with disjointed funk and angular riffs, often dissolving into feedback-laced post-punk-revival jams that would not sound far out of place in a loft in early 2000s Brooklyn or alternatively pulling songs to a grinding halt, hitting each beat with almost theatrical emphasis before darting back into the jagged, tightly-wound slink.
Like Stereolab, Mush’s songs are quite politically charged, a pragmatic look at the landscape of the present day. They attack subjects such as the gig economy, the creation of the ‘hostile environment’ for those seeking to immigrate and most powerfully the garage-rock workout of ‘Alternative Facts’, somewhat trimmed down from the studio recording’s 10 minute run time but blazing across the Albert Hall stage filled with righteous fury against a world seemingly getting bleaker by the moment.
“Insert Coin”. A dislocated robotic voice intones over and over with the slightest hint of desperation, like an old arcade machine overlooked by those around- as Stereolab make their way on stage to rapturous response. The mixture of splashing, jazzy drumwork, lounge-lizard bass and artificial flute created by Mellotron along with Lætitia’s breathy, occasionally wordless vocals, the Groop playing their Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music- a swingin’ shindig going full tilt, upbeat and airy. The use of equipment such as the Mellotron and a Rhodes electric piano – locking keyboardist Xavier Guimera in place centre stage – give Stereolab’s live setup a retro-future sheen, the sound of what the 1960s thought the 1990s would be- a sunny, space-age optimism. The group move into the dancefloor with a frantic, over-driven rendition of indie classic ‘French Disko’, at times barely keeping up with Sadier, flying through the spiralling verses with abandon, the existential lyrics turned into celebration- a marked contrast to the moody, cinematic ‘Baby Lulu’, which twists and turns through different speeds and shapes- the background to a ultra-stylish spy movie never created.
One of the appeals of Stereolab is the multi-facated nature of their sound, moving from a music cosmiche drone into a heavy Blaxploitation groove, back into a light lounge track, often all within the same song. ‘Metronomic Underground’, introduced as a song about the benfits of meditation, swirls around a tight, locked drone, hypnotic in its restraint until a fuzzy, hard-hitting freakout roars up, stretching out to titanic proportions. Inside these pieces of music are some incredibly intelligent, profound lyrics, closer to prose or even tone poems than a song, surrealism and situationism rubbing shoulders with critiques of commercialism, given a layer of post-modern irony due to the muzak influence within the band’s sound.
There’s an off-kilter otherworldliness to the band, made in part by Lætitia Sadier’s bilingual singing and ethereal quality, backed with the kitschy yet self-aware and sincere style, gives Stereolab a feeling completely out of place and out of time, like an strange cosmic radio picking up snippets of transmissions from far-flung places and times- songs, advertising jingles, background music, the music of the jet-set generation, mental images of Anna Karina posing by a Vespa for a Pierre Cardin promotional dance around with ‘Percolator’s gurgling synth. This contrasts with their minimalist, trancelike Krautrock pulses of ‘Ping Pong’ (a song introduced “about capitalism” with utter contempt from Sadier) and again with mesmerising avant-pop ‘Infinity Girl’, the instrumentation resolute, building up allowing Sadier’s voice to majestically soar above, while Tim Gane’s guitar playing often channels Kevin Shields, enveloped in distortion and filtered into near-unrecognisability.
“We have one song left, but it’s a long one. We could be here all night”. The disappointment of the first statement is washed away quickly as ‘Blue Milk’ begins, a groovy chanson gradually taken over into a sprawling free jazz, pausing and resuming with bursts of white noise- the cosmic radio dial turning to find the station under the signal is found once again, allowing the deluxe Can-sized freakout of fan-favourite ‘Jenny Ondioline’ to pour from the stage before fading out into the flotsam and jetsam as the audience shows their approval and appreciation of the iconic groop.
*- This actually happened. The NME, champions of the genre, created a fantasy football-style league that took place over the summer of 1994, based on chart positions and reviews. Readers could create their own fantasy groups by ‘buying’ band members. Luke Haines of The Auteurs notes in his fantastic autobiography Bad Vibes that he was placed in the Third Division. He deserved better.
**- Pulp and Suede, two of the ‘big four’ in 1995/6 (Suede unfortunately falling by the wayside shortly after) were also part of this early charge, being able to weather the storm created by the twin behemoths of Parklife and Definitely Maybe and create some iconic, lasting works in their own right.
Stereolab performed at the Albert Hall open Wednesday 31st July 2019. Words by Liam Moody.