Of all the great bands to emerge from the ’90s underground, Stereolab is damn near the top. Who else could meld Krautrock to bossa nova to dance to rock to lounge to jazz to orchestral music to soundtrack music to random-ass blips? Who else would have the nerve — nay, balls — to think that such an amalgamation could not only work, but also sound catchy in the way pop music should when everything works perfectly? And then there’s Laetitia Sadier… Not to sound lecherous, but indie women who coo and purr Marxist lyrics (in French!) while giving that Susanna Hoffs-“Walk-Like-an-Egyptian” glare? Maybe I’m just a red-blooded, anti-capitalist male, but that appeals to me. A lot.
Then again, everything about Stereolab appeals to me, from their detached cool to their nonchalant sophistication. Somehow they manage to be simultaneously futuristic and retro, their space-age modernism layered in classic chic. How? And what may be most endearing yet infuriating of all is how casual and confident they look while producing pop gems by the album load. Take a look at the photos on their website; these folks look like models wearing cutesy clothes in the Target weekly, not crazed artists who arrange and rearrange a million seemingly disparate elements of a single song. Yet crazed artists they must be, for Stereolab are 15 years into their career and they’ve yet to put out an album that sinks below stellar. During their tenure, Stereolab have morphed from drone-rock Dadaists to Bacharachian popsters to theatrical composers — and there are a dozen or so sub-phases within these phases. Don’t let the Downey-fresh shirts fool you; these guys know what the hell they’re doing.
Stereolab’s latest release, Oscillons from the Anti-Sun, culls songs from the band’s EPs and singles, stretching all the way back to the group’s earliest incarnations and styles. Consisting of three CDs and one DVD, this box set is a must-have for longtime fans and an excellent starting point for recent converts. True, Stereolab is one of those bands that inspire fanatics rather than fans, so most followers will probably already have the songs on this collection. These three CDs, however, save the listener from having to search out the various songs among the EPs and singles; moreover, the DVD, which collects the band’s videos and live performances on The Word and Later with Jools Holland, is enough incentive for serious collectors to purchase this set. Add to this an extremely low price of around $25 and you’ve got no real reason not to buy this collection.
Moreover, Oscillons does an excellent job representing the majority of Stereolab’s career. The songs span most of the ’90s, beginning with songs from 1993’s Transient Random Noise Bursts with Announcements and ending with tracks from 1999’s Free Design. Rather than taking a straight-forward chronological order, the track listing follows no apparent reasoning. Instead, the songs play like an iPod Shuffle loaded up with Stereolab songs, with familiar singles placed next to more obscure songs from EPs or B-sides. While some may find this sequencing confusing or frustrating, it serves to highlight an inescapable truth: no matter which lineup of the band or what group of influences at the time, Stereolab has consistently made infectious pop. Take an early track like “Jenny Ondioline”, with its static-charged guitars and trance-inducing strumming and the much later “Les Aimies Des Memes”, with its jazzy sophistication, and you’ll notice some underlying similarities. While the group has dabbled in more genres than most people are even familiar with, they have followed a fairly standard formula: bubbly harmonies, catchy beats, and sunny melodies. Songs like “Miss Modular”, from 1997’s Dots and Loops and “Ping Pong”, from 1994’s Mars Audiac Quintet, effervesce out of the speaker, then bounce in the air right into your brain, where they will remain as long as you’re sentient.
Indeed, what Oscillons mostly reveals is the undeniable genius of Stereolab, and the apparent ease with which they mix and match styles. “Pinball” sounds like the inside of an ’80s Atari game — all stuttering keyboards with laser sounds whizzing through the air. “Moodles” seamlessly blends drum loops with tingling piano and kitten-y harmonies, then segues into classic ’70s game show music before switching to what sounds like an outtake from the Beach Boys’ Smile; this is only the first half of the song. “The Noise of Carpet” mixes fuzzy, crunchy guitars with bouncy vocals and a solid rock beat. Any other band would be stupid to try to incorporate so many genres, but Stereolab have always known how to pull off the impossible, all the while setting the standard for stylish composure.
Oscillons from the Anti-Sun is nothing short of a treasure for new and old Stereolab fans. And even if you like seeking out these pop treats on vinyl and rare releases, surely you must be grateful that they’re all available as a single collection, ready for play without repeated trips to the stereo or computer. Normally, when a band begins to cull songs from their career, they have either reached an apex in their career, or they are considering the end. Here’s hoping that Stereolab doesn’t fall into either category; as Oscillons proves, even the scrappy odds and ends of their career are endlessly more fascinating than the best songs of many other bands.