How can one not like Stereo Total? The Berlin-based group, fronted by French singer/drummer Francoise Cactus and German singer/multi-instrumentalist Brezel Goring, specialize in the kind of simple, charming, ridiculously catchy pop music that instantly puts a smile on your face. Whether they’re singing in French, German, English, Italian, Japanese, or Turkish, every single song of theirs boasts simple, instantly memorable hooks that rattle around in your head for days afterward. With five very good albums under their belt, they’ve shown they’re much more than just another novelty pop act, as they jump from genre to genre, be it garage rock, electro, chanson, or J-pop, often on the same album.
Their most recent effort, 2001’s Musique Automatique, was re-released in North America by Olympia, Washington’s Kill Rock Stars, and now, a year later, the label has followed suit by giving the same treatment to Stereo Total’s first two albums, 1995’s Oh Ah and 1997’s Monokini, finally giving fans on this continent a chance to hear the band’s early work. While Oh Ah is a good little debut record, with some great choices of cover songs (KC and the Sunshine Band, Salt-N-Pepa) and guest contributors (Alex Chilton), the band made tremendous strides on their subsequent release, Monokini (this new reissue has five additional bonus tracks). Unlike Musique Automatique, which embraces more of a synth pop sound, Monokini is considerably rougher, and more wildly varied in its musical styles. Stereo Total might have learned to use those myriad musical influences in a more subtle fashion in subsequent years, but back then, not a chance. They go all out on Monokini, and the result is one uproariously enjoyable album.
In their typically tongue-in-cheek fashion, the band describes this album as being, “40% Chanson, 20% R’n'R, 10% Punkrock, 3% DAF-Sequencer, 4% Jacques Dutronc-Rhythmique, 7% Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg, 1.5% Cosmonaute, 10% really old synthesizers, 10% 8-bit Amiga-sampling, 10% transistor amplifier, 1% really expensive and advanced instruments.” And really, there’s no better way to put it. Opening track “Ach Ach Liebling” foreshadows the retro synth sound the band would more fully embrace four years later, but here, it’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The roaring ‘60s guitar rock of “Lunatique” immediately follows, its simple guitar licks, incessant tambourine-driven beat, and simple melody making it impossible not to think of the Raveonettes today. Brezel’s smooth baritone vocals on “Supergirl” greatly resemble Serge Gainsbourg or Leonard Cohen, and Cactus’s thin, yet sultry singing on “Furore” evoke the the wonderfully cheesy vocal stylings of Brigitte Bardot forty years ago. “Dilindam”, a song about “rain and falling in love in the rain,” is so wide-eyed, so charming, with its bouncy organ and snappy rhythm, you can’t help but let yourself go along with it, imagining it’s a young, winsome Catherine Deneuve singing so happily.
The machinelike “Und Wer Wird Sich Um Mich Kummern” (“And who will take care of me while you’re gone”), the spacey, blissed-out “Cosmonaute”, the crazed disco-meets lounge of “L’Appareil a Sous”, and the bossa nova blips of “Moustique” lend more of an arty air to the album, as Cactus and Brezel put more emphasis on synthesizers. Meanwhile, the guitars come out on such songs as the raucous “Aua” (during which Cactus hilariously mimics being whipped by a sadist) as well as the rockabilly stylings of “Tu M’As Voulue” and “LA, CA, USA”, the latter song possessing an insanely stupid, Ramones-like chorus that practically begs you to sing along, and you just can’t say no.
The clear highlight of Monokini is the pop gem “Schon von Hinten”, a song that feels instantly familiar after one listen to the album, primarily because no less than four versions of the song appear on the CD. For good reason, too. Their most adventurous song to date, the song is a mesmerizing pastiche of drum samples, Hawaiian guitar, a reggae bass line, and a hint of sitar, all mashed together, Shibuya-kei-style, like such Japanese acts as Pizzicato Five and Cibo Matto have done in the past. That Japanese pop influence was not lost on Stereo Total, as a Japanese language version is included (“Ushilo Sugata Ga Kilei”); and for good measure, an English version pops up as a bonus track (“The Other Side of You”), as well as a remix by Andreas Dorau.
Stereo Total’s remarkable versatility is best exemplified on another bonus track, their beautiful cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Ex Fan des Sixties” (originally made famous by Jane Birkin), as Brezel shows his synthesizer prowess and Cactus gives her most stirring vocal performance. Monokini was a great second album, but with its extra songs on this re-release, it’s even better than before, actually eclipsing the wonderful Musique Automatique. The album is so wild, so romantic, so much fun, that you wind up wishing that Stereo Total would let loose just one more time, like they did on this terrific album.