Stereo Total, the European duo of Françoise Cactus and Brezel Göring, have been around since the early 1990s, which by today’s accelerated standards, is damn near close to forever. During that time, Stereo Total have mixed and matched influences ranging from the Velvet Underground to early ’80s technopop and ’90s neo-lounge to build a mighty discography stretching across 12 albums.
Fortunately for novices, a new album, Ah! Quel Cinéma!, feels like as good a spot as any to plunge into Stereo Total’s odd brand of retro-electropop genius.
In a sentence, Stereo Total borrowed elements from all over the last 70 years of pop music to create Ah! Quel Cinéma! The resulting Eurotrash bargain basement new wave dance-pop is business as usual for Stereo Total, and business is good. Ah! Quel Cinéma! may inspire curious listeners to explore Stereo Total’s voluminous back pages, or maybe it won’t. But either way, Ah! Quel Cinéma! is a new-wavishly fun pop album with a gradually-revealed heart of darkness.
Stereo Total often builds its songs from the discarded rhythms of antiquated electronics. “Brezel Says” cops the rhythm of Trio’s beloved early ’80s hit/future TV jingle, “Da Da Da”, before settling into a distinct Velvet Underground sound. Meanwhile, the electronic percussion of “Mes Copines” has the distinct feel of an early They Might Be Giants album. Finding these long-lost techno-rhythms and tethering them to catchy and moody pop songs, is a vital key to Stereo Total’s sound.
Stereo Total open Ah! Quel Cinéma! with four pop bangers in a row, culminating in the sweeping “Cinemascope”. Propelled by a faux string section, an insistent organ, and a pinch – just a pinch! – of surf guitar twang, “Cinemascope” is apparently about how much Cactus enjoys sleeping and having wide-screen dreams.
After this up-tempo fun, sinister darkness settles in with “Methedrine”, a brooding dirge in which “everybody was sleeping with everybody”, and yet, “everybody hated everybody”. And, of course, “nine days a week, we were so high”, while walking around New York City, wearing dark sunglasses at night. While it’s a bit of a cliché to note how certain bands have the perfect sound to play the Bang Bang Bar in Twin Peaks, “Methedrine” and the other moody tracks on Ah! Quel Cinéma! would win Stereo Total a prime spot at that particular fictional bar.
Casual eccentricity abounds on Ah! Quel Cinéma! Take, for example, “Dancing with a Memory”. This bit of icy Eurodisco opens with a spirited “Woo! Yeah” and ends, inexplicably, with a sped-up sample of the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Can’t Get It Out of My Head”. Then, even before you’ve gotten Jeff Lynne and company out of your head, Cactus yells out her variation of Little Richard’s trademark “WopBobaLuBopaWopBamBoo” to kick start “Keine Musik”. It’s an oddly funky dance track with rhythm guitar crunch.
Ah! Quel Cinéma! ends on an unsettling note with a pretty ballad called “Elektroshocktherapie”. “Electroshock therapy,” Cactus intones forlornly, as the instrumentation fades, “Forever happy.” Clearly, the party’s over, but it only takes hitting the start button to rev it back up.