Stereolab is pop. Experimental, French-language-singing, vintage synthesizer-playing, space-age bachelor pad throwback, Marxist-leaning pop, but still. Stereolab is pop. A series of 2019 reissues is giving listeners a chance to re-experience Stereolab’s classic run of albums from the 1990s – or to experience them for the first time. The latest set of reissues covers the Stereolab albums released in 1996, 1997, and 1999, beginning with the band’s fourth full-length album, Emperor Tomato Ketchup.
Stereolab, initially a duo of Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier, formed in London in 1991, and released their debut album, Peng!, the following year. Over the next decade, Stereolab were part of a collective of international bands favoring a mix-and-match stylistic approach to pop music. They would mix and match experimental and more conventional pop sounds, synth and progressive stylings, easy listening sounds, and whatever else struck their fancy. Among other artists providing this 1990s-era alternative to grunge and gangsta rap: Japan’s Pizzicato Five and Cibo Matto (a Japanese duo living in New York); the German/French duo Stereo Total; and the United States-based Combustible Edison, among others.
Released in April 1996 – a month that saw new releases by other 1990s mainstays like Hootie and the Blowfish, Veruca Salt, and Rage Against the Machine – Emperor Tomato Ketchup tied together various threads that Stereolab had been playing with up to that point. The album opens with the eight-minute-long “Metronomic Underground”, a droning track that incorporates hip-hop rhythm and scratching into the minimalistic sound.
“Metronomic Underground” hypnotically entices listeners. But Stereolab seal the deal with the second track, “Cybele’s Reverie”. Swathed in strings and keyboards and sung in French by Sadier – as are many Stereolab songs – “Cybele’s Reverie” is one of many pop delights to be found on Emperor Tomato Ketchup.
Some of the pop songs on Emperor Tomato Ketchup, such as “Percolator”, reflect Stereolab’s growing infatuation with the space-age, bachelor pad, pop era of the 1950s. The 1990s revival of bachelor pad artists like Esquivel and Martin Denny clearly inspired Stereolab, who returned the favor by further stroking their fans’ interests in the likes of Esquivel and Denny.
With all the pop and lounge sounds coursing through Emperor Tomato Ketchup, it is important to note that the band had certainly not forsaken other, less retro sounds. “The Noise of Carpet” is a churning rocker, while “Spark Plug” adds a subtle hint of funk to the mix. “OLV 26” continues the band’s ongoing synthesizer experimentation.
Clocking in at nearly an hour long, Emperor Tomato Ketchup is very much a product of the compact disc age. Like the sustain on one of Nigel Tufnel’s favorite guitars in This Is Spinal Tap, you can go out for a bite, and chances are Emperor Tomato Ketchup will still be playing when you get back. Fortunately, Emperor Tomato Ketchup justifies the length, remaining varied and interesting from “Metronomic Underground” through to the closing Velvet Underground-and-Nico-inspired drone, “Anonymous Collective”.
Each of the Stereolab reissues features a collection of bonus tracks, and the 15 Emperor Tomato Ketchup demos might provide some insight into the creative process for serious fans of the album. At the same time, most of the demo collection can be heard as an enjoyably casual variation on the original album, though the last stretch begins to feel tedious.
Emperor Tomato Ketchup marked the beginning of a peak creative phase for Stereolab, who would close out the 1990s with two more recently reissued albums: Dots and Loops (1997) and Cobra and Phases Play Voltage in the Milky Night (1999).