Stereolab: The First of the Microbe Hunters

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By Matt Byrnie

Stereolab is, at its core, a charming couple making sweet, campy pop that serves as an equally appropriate soundtrack for European car commercials and art student make-out sessions. Between the chanteuse stylings of Laetetia Sadier and the implacable ear of her songwriting partner/husband Tim Gane, which is nourished by his insatiable record collecting habit, most Stereolab songs are instantly likeable for their airy, timeless tunefulness. Drawing inspiration from exotica, sci-fi soundtracks, sixties pop, minimalist composers, easy listening music, and melodious jazz, Stereolab has the makings of a hodge-podge thrift store sound but produces crisp, seamless pastiche where xylophones, synthesizer drones and breathy French vocals coalesce. They are more Truffaut than Tarantino. The impossibly cool song remains the same on their latest release, The First of the Microbe Hunters.

It’s unclear how Stereolab gained a Marxist reputation, but it may have something to do with their way of coyly subverting the postmodern paradigm of “style over substance” by pursuing substance through style. They are capable of injecting short, mellifluous pop songs with remarkable complexity. Take ” I Feel the Air (Of Another Planet),” for example, and listen to how the spacey ballad is built around a looped vocal technique from Phillip Glass’ The Photographer. Or “Barock-Plastik,” where improvisatory jazz techniques sneak into the three-minutes-to-the-dot pop format.

Microbe Hunters is in the vein of Stereolab’s blippier and boppier output that first crystalized on 1996’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup, when the band’s alternating line-up stabilized in a form that it has retained more or less ever since. Longtime collaborator Sean O’Hagan, who left the band when it was still in its drone stage in 1992 for the High Llamas, returns again and shares songwriting credits for “Outer Bongolia,” which sounds like Perez Prado leading the My Bloody Valentine Arkestra. Microbe Hunters doesn’t pave any new ground for the band and it’s fairly mediocre by Stereolab standards, but its crisp, flaky compositions are still miles ahead of most in the indie arena.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/stereolab-first/