Stereolab’s discography is a maze. There’s albums, singles, 10″ records, 3″ CDs, two-disc CD compilations, split singles, art installations, limited-edition 7″ records with hand-painted cover art, a box set containing three CDs, one DVD, and eight stickers… it goes on and on. Each release has striking, colorful cover art and music to match. A complete collection of Stereolab releases would resemble an art museum, or perhaps a curio collection. Even with this level of depth, there are types of release missing from their discography. A notable one is a live album. Another is a greatest hits album: a compact survey of their career, a “beginner’s guide to Stereolab”.
The single-disc Serene Velocity: A Stereolab Anthology is that introductory guide. Or is it? It contains 16 songs, in chronological order by original release date, 1993 to 2004. Those aren’t all of the Stereolab years — the first couple years aren’t covered, and neither are the last couple. It’s more or less the Elektra Years, and the bulk of their proper albums were released by Elektra, so it does survey most of their career, starting with the 7″ version of “Jenny Ondioline” and ending with one track from 2004’s Margerine Eclipse album, with one-to-three songs from each album in between. But how does a greatest-hits album work without hits? Or if gathering together hits or singles isn’t the purpose, what is? With collections like this, it can be hard to determine the goal, outside of gaining additional sales for previously released material. Presumably the point of Serene Velocity is to be a gateway, to hook new listeners on Stereolab. But wouldn’t almost any Stereolab release do the same? So it’s about marketing, then.
Stereolab is a band with its own distinct musical personality, one not easily summarized but easily recognized. Start with a Neu!-like groove — bearing strong Velvet Underground overtones in the earliest years — and add a pop sense for melody, with echoes of bubblegum, of exotica, of Beach Boys and bossa nova. And don’t forget about all the keyboards, the Moogs, the way those gave their music future-science surfaces. And then there’s the sleek, gorgeous vocal harmonies, from lead singer Laetita Sadier and keyboardist/singer Mary Hansen, who died in a tragic bicycle accident in 2002. Their sound may be a pastiche of others’, but its influence is quickly heard in legions of other sound-oriented groups, from indie-label pop groups veering towards copycat realms to hip-hop producers like the late J Dilla, a Stereolab fanatic who incorporated samples of their music into his and even recruited Sadier to sing on a Common track. His love for their music might seem unlikely, unless you recognize Stereolab’s own enthusiasm for the science of sound, for atmosphere and for what happens when styles clash in the air. That’s evident on any given Stereolab song, including those captured here.
Stereolab’s sound is distinct enough that critics are often in danger of reducing them to it, of simplifying their music down to one monolithic sound. In its own way, Serene Velocity falls into that trap, perhaps inevitably, but also through effort.
It’s true in a sense: every Stereolab release sounds alike. But each release also sounds quite different from the others. Within their basic style, there’s much variety, from the more rock-directed approach of Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements (1993) and the space-funk of Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1995) to the jazzier, more worldly nature of Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage In the Milky Night (1999) and the dreamland lullabies of Sound-Dust (2001).
Serene Velocity nominally tries to acknowledge these differences, through the chronological song order and the generic-rock-critic-style song descriptions, written by Mike McGonigal, in the liner notes. But in song choice it tends to gloss over these differences, by always choosing the catchy, mid-tempo pop moments that stick closest to the stereotypical Stereolab sound, and mostly ignoring the songs that would truly demonstrate the breadth of their discography.
Through its chronological order, it’s structured not as a mix, but as a history lesson, or as an example of the group’s range across the years. And it fails by not shedding light on either. If it’s meant as an absolute “the best of Stereolab” it also fails, not just because that’s a subjective distinction, but because the song choice is never adventurous, never surprising, and (partly through the limitations of record-label affiliation) leaves out many truly spectacular moments. And if it’s meant as a pleasurable mix, built around how the songs sound best together, it especially fails.
Instead, it is what it is: a middle-of-the-road collection meant to introduce brand-new listeners to “the Stereolab sound”. And as such, it’s enjoyable, as the music itself can’t be damaged merely through its presentation. But I can’t escape the feeling that any Stereolab fan, selected at random, could come up with a better release, one where the song sequence makes a specific impact.
As a Stereolab release, it’s hard to justify, particularly today when nearly any song can be downloaded from iTunes or similar retailers. Choose a song from each Stereolab album and mix them up, and you’re likely to get just as compelling a collection, as this one isn’t particularly well-sequenced, and doesn’t do anything to present Stereolab in a particular context. In fact, context seems irrelevant to the album’s creators, as does continuity.
At what point will this type of extraneous release be made obsolete? I can think of plenty of singles compilations and greatest-hits albums that offer a strong argument for the form’s relevance, but this certainly isn’t one.