Stereolab's Recent Re-Isssues Are Re-Imagined, and Re-Contextualized to Stunning Effect
Reissues of two early albums are a startling reminder of Stereolab's power and influence. Their music not only re-invents itself, but it refreshes and renews its listeners as well.
Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements/Mars Audiac Quintet
3 May 2019
Mars Audiac Quintet
3 May 2019
The matter of the album reissue, and more particularly the expanded album reissue, is a vexed one. How many times, for example, are you prepared to buy the same Elvis Costello albums, with different liner notes and the same extra tracks in varying orders? But of course, if the source material is good, and the original context is interesting, there is often a case to be made for a reconsideration of a given album at least once, particularly if there is a strong selection of peripheral material to bolster the context of the album's initial release. It is often also fascinating to look back at the early life of a given band now that we know what they subsequently became, both to remind ourselves of how they started, and also to join the dots (and loops) between their earlier material and their later recorded output.
All of this is certainly germane to a consideration of the recent reissue of two albums from Stereolab, Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, originally from 1993, and Mars Audiac Quintet, from 1994. These are understood to be the first of seven such reissues. Taken together, these two expanded versions of the albums provide over three-and-a-half-hours of music and 25 additional tracks, almost all of which offer invaluable contextualization of the original material.
Both of these albums were originally issued on Stereolab's own Duophonic label (they were licensed to Elektra in the United States), following on from their first album proper, Peng!, which was released on the Too Pure label in 1992, and the mini-album The Groop Played "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music" also on Too Pure, from early 1993. Too Pure was, by accident or design, somehow and somewhat responsible for (or at least the host to) the very niche and rather unfortunately named Camden Lurch scene of the early 1990s. The label was home not only to Stereolab but also the twinned wonders of Th'Faith Healers and PJ Harvey, whose first and instantly classic album Dry came out under its imprint in 1992.
It is rather strange now to think of any of these artists as sitting comfortably alongside any other, such was their fierce independence, so it might surprise you to learn that all three of these bands performed on the same bill in London around this time as part of what might loosely be called a Too Pure Revue, of sorts. If it is difficult to think of a common denominator here apart from the small label that released their early work, you might do worse than to consider that they each made a rather terrifying if not at all similar noise, and that they each had a simultaneous ear for a beautiful melody, albeit that it might have been disguised under layers of sound.
That Stereolab would break away to form their own label so soon after Peng! is a testament to their dedicated sense of autonomy and self-determination. That they wanted to be independent of even the most independent label in Too Pure (while at the same time maintaining a conditional relationship with a major label like Elektra for wider distribution) tells you something about their particularity and their insistence on control, all of which are undoubtedly admirable traits. When you think that all of this was happening at a time when Nirvana, for example, had been moving in precisely the opposite direction, from Sub Pop to Geffen, in their journey to accidental global domination and ultimate corporate self-loathing, it is interesting to remember that other things were going on, and other musical narratives were playing out in the interstices of the culture. It's particularly resonant when you think about how Nirvana's legacy of recorded output and whatever might remain unreleased has been debated, considered, repackaged, litigated, and otherwise agonized over in the decades since their apotheosis and subsequent immolation.
Stereolab have had a very different and particular trajectory from Nirvana, and the two albums under consideration here represent a fascinating glimpse into a band that was almost re-starting its career and re-launching its aesthetic after a couple of more than serviceable early releases. There was, after all, absolutely nothing wrong with either Peng or Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, but the band clearly seems to have felt the need for some kind of reset, which Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements and Mars Audiac Quintet more or less represent. Both albums are beautifully relentless and at the same time relentlessly bonkers. We'll begin with a re-consideration of Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, both in its original form and in the context of the additional materials released upon the occasion of this expanded reissue.
Common wisdom might have tried to peddle a rather easy description of Stereolab as a fairly sedate and very sophisticated but hypnotic outgrowth and re-imagining of Krautrock, purveying a pleasant continental drone groove, more groove rather than drone, and to some extent, they did indeed grow into that sound over time. But when you begin to revisit the first of these reissues, Transient Random- Noise Bursts With Announcements, it is immediately apparent that the band emerged from several separate traditions simultaneously. This album is almost a trying on and a trying out of those traditions as a way of working out an identity that they were ultimately going to choose to adopt when any one of them might have proved equally fruitful.
The first (re-)impression of Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements is that the title is unerringly accurate because this often sounds like utter chaos but in a gloriously liberating way. If we might briefly and delicately pick our way through the tapestry of sounds here, it might be fair to say that the ten-song salvo that constitutes the original album's tracklist is a fantastic weaving together of various aspects of the Velvet Underground, the discord and abandon or punk rock, elements of the motorik Krautrock and kosmische musik that came later to be known as post-rock, along with an interspersing of the beautiful continental melodies and harmonies that drew from Serge Gainsbourg and others. All of this taken together is certainly hypnotic, to coin a rather tired musical adjective, but it's also supremely impressive not only in its encyclopedic awareness of its own contexts and influences but also in its ability to incorporate all of those interwoven sounds into the newly-minted Stereolab gestalt and execute that in an incredible aural document.
A quick survey of the opening tracks gives us all of these elements in quick succession, and often simultaneously. "Tone Burst" recalls nothing more than the Velvet Underground at its droning and driving peak, as does "Our Trinitone Blast" as well to a certain degree. This is followed by the delightful saunter of "Pack Yr Romantic Mind" as we ventilate the hitherto proceedings. But "I'm Going Out of My Way" and "Golden Ball" are, to be frank, flat-out insane in all the very best ways. They represent two sides of the Velvet Underground coin respectively, with "I'm Going Out of My Way" providing the groove, and "Golden Ball" providing the drone, while they each at some point seem to come together in a synthesis of both elements with the sublimed "Pause". It's a quite brilliant conceit, and rather wonderfully executed.
But the clear and confounding centerpiece of the album is the 18-minute force of nature that is "Jenny Ondioline", and this is where an interesting set of theories comes into play. Because, to begin with, "Jenny Ondioline" is both the pivot and the fulcrum of Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, in the sense that it is in some ways the apotheosis of Stereolab's rock moment. The song also represents a burn-down farewell to the rock tradition and a simultaneously liberating hail to the ambient drone the band would fine-tune and perfect as they moved forward from this point.
Furthermore, the song is also a four-in-one puzzle, as the first six or seven minutes build to a climax of sheer noise, only to be supplanted by a different kind of drone-groove around the 7:30 mark, and then replaced and reinvented yet again with the almost complete insanity that is heralded by the brief spoken word announcement around 13:30, before we finally settle into a more comfortable groove for the final three minutes. Truly all of life is here in this one song and there are three more tracks to go before the album ends, all of which replicate in some form the meteorological vicissitudes of the phenomenon that is "Jenny Ondioline" from the oscillating hum and squeal of "Analogue Rock" to the bracing and strident clarity of "Crest" and the stubborn sludge of the closing "Lock-Groove Lullaby".
What is more, this expanded reissue contains another 18 minutes' worth of "Jenny Ondioline" versions, demos, and mixes. It also includes other versions of songs from the "Jenny Ondioline" EP, including the wonderful "Fruition", and two versions of the fantastic "French Disco", the unplugged demo of which we get here proving that drone does not need to be electrified to jam out. In total this expanded album's 105 minutes contains more than 45-minutes of material that is somehow part of the "Jenny Ondioline" universe (hey, if we're going to dip our feet into the early days of what has unfortunately come to be called math rock, we may as well do some actual math).
So if "Jenny Ondioline" is the sun around which the rest of Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements orbits, what are we to make of it now with the benefit of more than a quarter-century of hindsight and perspective? Well, with an awareness of the perils inherent in even the merest suggestion of deploying the intentional fallacy, it seems worth wondering to what extent the entire Stereolab project might be orbiting around the question of its relation to the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray", a song that exists in almost countless live and studio versions of various lengths, all of which are individual eco-systems of their own. "Sister Ray" is the kind of jam that certain people who abhor jam bands would happily listen to on an endless loop.
Joy Division, also not uninfluential on the Stereolab oeuvre, themselves covered "Sister Ray" on the live album Still, but their version clocks in at a rather disappointing seven minutes or so. Meanwhile, the Velvet Underground's performance of the song could stretch to longer than half an hour on a given night, depending on the bands' propensity to regenerate the machine of their drone groove and Lou Reed's inclination to keep adding new lyrics to the narrative. If there is a foundational rock and roll text, then there is an argument to be made that "Sister Ray" should be a candidate.
But that fact that "Sister Ray" might be a foundational rock 'n' roll text and at the same time a foundational avant-garde text is, in fact, the crux of what drives Stereolab's narrative. So much (indeed, frankly almost all) of this material starts to make a quite different kind of sense if you ask yourself whether and to what extent a given song in this part of Stereolab's catalog resembles or takes its cue from the aforementioned Velvet Underground touchstone. If you look at it all through this lens/filter, you can start to track the band's trajectory accordingly, and some rather interesting things happen. It's almost as if "Sister Ray" can serve to function as a concordance or a user's guide to Stereolab. That is by no means intended to suggest that they set out to work out their Sister Ray issues as a career goal, but once having had the thought it does become hard to shake off. "I'm Going Out of My Way", for example, now heard in this new relief, feels for all the world like a "Sister Ray" outtake without being in the least bit derivative.
If indeed so much of Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements starts now to sound like it has emerged from the smoldering wreckage of this Velvet Underground Urtext, it's also interesting to wonder not only what they did with that source material, but whether and/or how they tried to escape from or at least move away from the very long shadow that it cast. Because there is indeed a point at which Stereolab seem to have an epiphany, and the epiphany seems to involve attempting to develop a sound that evolves from "Sister Ray" in preference to a sound that somehow only continues to replicate it in various forms. Or rather, if they were going to make a noise that may or may not have been birthed from Sister Ray", at some point there seems to have been a swerving away from the way in which the song had rock and roll influences, and a veering into the path that allows "Sister Ray" to be instead a more avant-garde kind of influential text. That, then, appears to represent a crucial part of the band's evolution, and it seems to happen right at the transition from Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements to Mars Audiac Quintet.
And here is what's really interesting about this entirely improvised unified field theory of Stereolab: Mars Audiac Quintet also leans heavily on "Sister Ray", but it takes the keyboard fork in the road rather than the guitar one. So it's as if they're both extended interpretations of the same song but in starkly contrasting settings and contexts. It's quite a stunning bifurcation. Thus, Mars Audiac Quintet begins with the keyboard drone of "Three-Dee Melodie" rather than the guitar drone that characterized so much of Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements. It's no less of a totalizing wall of sound, but its points of inflection are subtly different and distinct. It's as if the guitar and keyboard's respective prominence has been inverted from one album to the next, albeit that both remain present. But you can feel the ground shift under your feet in this moment of transition.
What you can also hear on Mars Audiac Quintet is the sound of Stereolab becoming the platonic ideal version of Stereolab that you think of by the power of suggestion when someone mentions their name. Songs like "Wow And Flutter" and "Transona Five" are the epitome of what one might rather clumsily call Stereolab-ness as we have come to know it. Indeed it is as if Mars Audiac Quintet represents the ascent of the band to its drone throne, the dais of which is constructed on the poppy electronic pillars of songs like "Des Etoiles Electroniques" and "Ping Pong", while "The Stars Our Destination" anticipates Yo La Tengo's "Autumn Sweater" by a couple of years.
And if there is no "Jenny Ondioline" behemoth here, there are some lengthy drone workouts in the form of songs such as "Anamorphose" the driving "Nihilist Assault Group" (which is by no means as difficult a listening experience as its name would suggest), and the consummate Stereolab jam of "Outer Accelerator". The original tracklist of Mars Audiac Quintet ends with "Fiery Yellow", a title you might expect to sear the paint off the walls with its visceral drone. Instead, though, it's a gentle bucolic meander through the tulips with the sound of a synthesized marimba. We seem to be leaving something behind to grow into something else.
The extra tracks on Mars Audiac Quintet are every bit as outstanding as those on its predecessor. While there is not the continual and restless re-working of "Jenny Ondioline" to occupy us here, we do get deeply satisfying versions of "Melochord Seventy-Five" and "Outer Accelerator", along with much briefer demos of many of the original album tracks, all of which add up to an overall sound that is materially distinct from what came before. It's possible here to see the band's tentacles reaching after a different sonic and rhythmic palette, while never fully abandoning their founding principles. This palette would change once more, again subtly but distinctly, on the subsequent album Emperor Tomato Ketchup, whose own reissue we also await with no little anticipation, as the band continued to develop and sharpen its focus on different keyboard and electronic sounds.
The recently departed poet (and erstwhile Poet Laureate) W.S. Merwin spoke in his later life of the way that all thought and distraction would melt away when he was in his garden and fully absorbed in the present moment among the thousands of trees he himself had planted on the Hawaiian "ruined land" that he reclaimed in order to salvage and resuscitate it. This was when poems would come to him. One of the paradoxes of mindfulness is that, in being fully present in such a moment, all sense of time and place effectively disappears, leaving you entirely de-contextualized.
The cumulative effect of revisiting and re-contextualizing these early albums from Stereolab is somewhat similar, in that we experience the burnt stubble of rock 'n' roll (exemplified by the scorched earth of the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray") as the template for a form of both complete absorption in a present moment of musical mindfulness along with the simultaneous re-invention of music by re-purposing and reclaiming its ruined raw materials. In this way, music not only re-invents itself, but it refreshes and renews its listeners as well.
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