Stereolab: Serene Velocity: A Stereolab Anthology

Stereolab's discography is a maze, and this is meant as a guidebook. But it's missing a few pages, at least.


Serene Velocity: A Stereolab Anthology

Label: Elektra
US Release Date: 2006-08-29
UK Release Date: 2006-09-04

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.


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This will most definitely not be the last home media incarnation Titanic gets, but at the moment it’s undeniably the most exquisite.


Director: James Cameron
Cast: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kathy Bates, Billy Zane, Victor Garber
Distributor: Paramount
Rated: PG-13
Release date: 2012-09-10

In recent years it seems that Titanic can do no good. First it became common for hipsters and scholars to dismiss it on terms of how shallow and decadent it was, then it became a punchbag for jokes once James Cameron’s Avatar outgrossed it all over the world. Finally, it became an object of ridicule when it was announced that it would be re-released in 3D, because why else would this movie be shown again, if not to make its creator richer, right?

Turns out, just like when it was first released, Titanic proved that its success wasn’t accidental; it is still one of the finest motion pictures ever made. To date, the re-release has grossed over $340 million all over the world and now it’s come out in a stunning Blu-ray edition that might as well be the best home media release of 2012.

Explaining what Titanic the film is about seems redundant because by now we have all been subjected to it, whether on VHS tapes, DVD or the countless times it’s played over holidays or during Valentine’s Day (or even as part of V-Day staples like Love Actually). However, to those few people who have been living under a rock since 1997, Titanic is an epic film about the sinking of the most famous ship in history, combined with a sweeping love story described by one of its creators as “Romeo and Juliet on a boat”. Essentially, there is nothing particularly complicated about Titanic, the story.

What is so fascinating since it first came out 15 years ago, however, remains. What is it, exactly, that made this film so popular? How did a movie that would’ve fit best if it had been made during Hollywood’s Golden Era become such an audience and critical darling? How did its unabashed corniness survive the cynical late '90s, and how can it have grossed as much as newer movies in 2012 when people can watch it for free at home?

Simply told, Titanic is possibly the last great cinematic spectacle of our time. It came out at just the exact time for its use of CGI to be as innovative as its storytelling simplicity is timeless (in the same way we look at the effects on movies like King Kong or Star Wars, we know they’re not “real” but they work in the context). Like those classics, James Cameron’s film is worthy of our time because it believes so much in the story it’s telling that we can’t seem to dislike it. Its honesty is such that it has characters say lines like “I’d rather be his whore than your wife” without a hint of irony.

Powered by Leo’s baby face and Kate’s uncontrollable fire (shouldn’t she have won her first Oscar for this?) the romance may not appeal to all, but it still manages to tap into something quite peculiar: that idea that unfulfilled love always surpasses the intensity of truly possible love. It’s what worked in movies like Casablanca,Gone With the Wind and The Way We Were. Perhaps that’s just it, this film’s big secret: it’s nothing if not a deconstruction of classic Hollywwod and everything that made it so spectacular. From the powerful performances of the ensemble (even people in bit parts are extraordinary), to its loving attention to detail, and then its undeniable need to entertain, it can really be said that this movie has something for everyone.

Perhaps we might have become too cynical to blast out “My Heart Will Go On” in public without feeling like we’ve committed a crime, and perhaps we do pretend like Kate and Leo didn’t give some of their greatest performances in this, but at the end of the day it’s impossible to deny how Titanic defined an era and how we were part of the phenomenon. What’s even better, it loses none of its power when we watch it at home.

The folks at Paramount Home Media have done an extraordinary job bringing Titanic to Blu-ray in 3D and 2D. The 3D version is spread over two discs (before you complain, you need to remember how heavy this file is and then have to see how breathtaking it looks in 3D). The movie has probably never looked this beautiful and the disc with the 2D version includes commentaries by Cameron, cast and crew, and a historical commentary by historians Ken Marschall and Don Lynch.

A fourth disc includes an extensive array of extras imported from previous home media versions, including archival TV spots, trailers, one hour of deleted scenes (all of which prove how wrong this movie could’ve gone if Cameron wasn’t such a control freak and a phenomenal editor), a deep dive presentation, Celine Dion’s iconic music video, a series of parodies which prove humor isn’t always timeless, and various still galleries with conceptual art as well as storyboard and artwork sketches.

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