Listening to three Stereo Total discs in quick succession is an experience probably not recommended for those with delicate constitutions. They’ve got the kind of energy that could best be described as infectious—as in, highly contagious. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Stereo Total present the majority of their material in either German or French, producing a slight disconnect for this English-speaking listener. For all I know, they could be singing about death and bloody despair, but it sure sounds chipper. They do sing an occasional tune in English, and the results are such as to lead me to believe that they are preoccupied with sex in the traditional European fashion; that is, tongue-and-cheek and deceptively ironic in a way that borders on insouciance. (The patron saint of this effect is Serge Gainsbourg, and sure enough, two Gainsbourg songs are dutifully covered on My Melody.) It’s an irresistible combination, as evidenced by “Heaven’s In The Back Seat Of My Cadillac”, on Juke Box Alarm:
Heaven’s in the back seat /
Of my Cadillac, /
Let me take you there yeah yeah, /
Heaven’s in the back seat /
Of my Cadillac, /
Let me take you there yeah yeah.
That’s a fairly representative lyric, at least in terms of their English output. Based on my limited ability to gloss European languages, it would appear that their other lyrics, while slightly more elaborate in terms of diction and syntax, deal with similar subject matter. At any rate, the chipper disposition is exactly the same, and needs no translation.
Stereo Total is the brainchild of two continental songwriters, the French Françoise Cactus and the German Brezel Göring. To celebrate the release of their seventh LP, Discotheque (a compilation of remixes off their previous record, Do the Bambi, as well as covers and assorted odds and ends), the good folks at Kill Rock Stars have rereleased two of the duo’s previous albums—1998’s Juke Box Alarm and 1999’s My Melody. Usually this is the type of thing that annoys me to no end—rereleasing an album that’s not even 10 years old, with bonus tracks tacked on so as to make it irresistible to the long-time fan who already owns the material in the first place. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Le Tigre.)
But in this case I think I can be more forgiving. According to the press kit included with Discotheque, Do the Bambi moved a trifling 4,000 copies on Soundscan. While Soundscan probably misses a lot of indie music stores, it’s still worth noting that that is an absolutely pitiful showing for such a great band. These guys deserve to be heard by as wide an audience as their peers in groups like the aforementioned Le Tigre, Bis, Saint Etienne and Stereolab. If these rereleases encourage more people to give the group a try, then that will have been a very good thing.
The fact that the majority of their songs are in languages other than English sharply limits their commercial potential in the dominate markets, but probably not so much among the hipsters who would comprise the bulk of their fanbase. (It’s only been in the last two years you’ve even heard Spanish language music on mainstream radio, and over 10 percent of Americans speak Spanish. Sorry, Rammstein . . .) Now, thanks to Kill Rock Stars, the complete Stereo Total discography is available in America. You don’t have any good excuse for missing out on these guys.
It would be an awful shame if the language barrier prevented people from digging on such unbelievably fun music. Because really, that’s what Stereo Total are all about. Imagine, if you will, that the fifth Beatle was a dude who played a cheap synthesizer and rocked an 808, and you may have some idea of the kind of vibe we’re dealing with here, particularly if you can go further to imagine the first Beatles record being fronted by an irresistible French chanteuse (that would be Ms. Cactus). But Stereo Total don’t sound as if they’ve a lot of time for elaborate, Sgt. Peppers-era rock statements—they’re all about the OG, Straight Outta Hamburg-Beatles*, back when they were kind of scruffy and screamed a lot while playing mostly covers of American R&B. They’ve even taken care to make their records sound like they were recorded 40 years ago on aging analog equipment: even when the backing rhythms are obviously sampled and the synthesizers kick in, the vibe is early Phil Spector and surf rock all the way. Their commitment to the antiquarian ethos in their recording makes Jack White look like a piker.
Stereo Total, despite the bloops and blips, are most importantly students of classic rock and roll. In addition to the obviously retro energy, they also tip their hands by playing a few revealing covers. My Melody features “Tu Peux Conduire Ma Bagnole, which roughly translates to the familiar “Baby, You Can Drive My Car”. That album also features the aforementioned Serge Gainsbourg covers, “Vilaines Filles, Mauvis Garçons” and, presented as a bonus track, “In / Out”. Discotheque features a raft of covers as well, including a manic, lounge-punk reading of the Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper” and a cover of “Chelsea Girls” (written by Lou Reed and, appropriately enough, originally performed by Nico), the synthesizer riff of which makes a not-so-subtle reference to Donna Summer’s immortal “I Feel Love”. The combination of Reed’s dispirited storytelling the the ur-disco rhythm makes for quite a bracing dichotomy.
If you need any proof that these guys know their business, I should say that one of their covers even stumped me and required a bit of Googling to figure out. My Melody features a track called “Ringo, I Love You” credited to Anders, Poncia and Spector. This has to be one of the more obscure pieces of rock trivia imaginable: “Ringo, I Love You” was the debut single from a singer named Bonnie Jo Mason, as well as being the first release on the aforementioned Phil Spector’s Annette 1000 label (Annette being the name of Spector’s first wife). Bonnie Jo Mason was the original nom de guerre of a singer named Cherilyn Sarkisian, whom you might know better as, simply, Cher. So, yeah, I guess you could say Stereo Total know their rock ‘n’ roll—they wear their enthusiasm on their sleeve.
They also know their dance music, to judge by the evidence of Discotheque. There are two different versions of the rather self-explanatory “Everybody in the Discotheque (I Hate)”, the best anti-clubbing club song since the Smiths’ “Panic”:
I don’t like pills, /
I don’t like coke, /
I don’t like the pretty folk, /
Can’t stand the DJ, /
Don’t like the records that he plays, no!
The first mix, provided by Motor Mark, is a Miami bass influenced rave-up that sounds like the illicit love child of DJ Assault and Bis. The second mix, courtesy of Echokrank, is even more energetic, replacing Cactus’ angry vocals with a computerized vox that makes the whole thing sound like the product of an angry robot revolution.
The climax of Discotheque comes in the presentation of Do the Bambi’s “Das Erste Mal”. First, Justus Köhncke presents the track as in eight-minute epic of glitchy, melancholy micro-house that seems slightly removed from the majority of Stereo Total’s output. It almost reminds me of Underworld in the way that the repetition of rhythmic motifs and spare melodic lines adds up to something infinitely more affecting and emotional than the sum of its parts would indicate. Even further afield, the album finishes with a four-track suite composed by the Mad Professor that successfully breaks the track’s structure into its composite elements and glues them back together in a lazy, languid fashion. I am of the opinion that there are few tracks which cannot be improved by a dub reggae remix, and the Mad Professor does not give me reason to doubt this theory.
The one, quintessential album of this deluge of Stereo Total goodness will probably be My Melody. From the very beginning, it is impossible to resist a track like “Beautycase”, even if, as I have said, one has no idea what the German lyrics mean. Cactus sings in such a winningly winsome manner that it is impossible to keep from smiling. I don’t know what “Was kann ich tun, um diesen Augen zu gefallen? / Beautycase, öffne dich” means**, but I’ve had it in my head for a few days. It’s one of those hooks that quite literally stabs your brain with pop goodness until you bleed, and the whole album is laced with that kind of good-natured electricity. Tracks like “Ich Leibe Dich, Alexander” and “Partit Ou Mourir” sound like authentic bits of post-Elvis pop, until you realize that they were recorded and released in 1999, and not 1959. But aside from the synthesizers, it’s hard to tell.
That’s Stereo Total in a nutshell. They create the kind of unaffected, spry and danceable rock ‘n’ roll that is all too rare these days. Somehow, through the prism of their Continental enthusiasm they seem to have conjured a formula for sincere pop that puts to shame any recent attempts by domestic bands to hearken back to the wholly genuine days of early rock ‘n’ roll. Despite the electronic trappings, they’ve recaptured an energy indigenous to the first decade of rock that seemed to have faded with the onset the British Invasion, and this energy somehow manages to survive intact even when they step into the more modern confines of the dance floor. All in all, it’s an enormous treat for the conscientious music lover, a rare example of explicitly retro pop that manages to achieve a timeless effect.
*Note: The Beatles never actually recorded an album called Straight Outta Hamburg. But I posit that the world would be a slightly better place if they had.
**Note: According to a translation note on their site, it actually means: “What can I do to please these eyes? Beautycase, open yourself!”
Juke Box Alarm