For the uninitiated, Berlin duo Stereo Total (that's pronounced "toe-TAHL", as opposed to the North American "toadle") is comprised of a French female singer and a German keyboard whiz, who sing cute synth-pop in French. And in German. And English. And Japanese. And Spanish. And, erm, Turkish. Sounds a bit out there for some people's liking, but hey, we already have a bunch of Icelanders who sing in their own warped form of Esperanto over bowed guitars, and they have a cult following. So compared to that, why not have some rather catchy Turkish pop music around as well?
Musique Automatique, Stereo Total's fifth album, was actually released in 2001, but the Kill Rock Stars label in Olympia, Washington has picked up their U.S. rights, and have re-released the album a year later with some bonus goodies stuck on for good measure. The music on this album is strictly all about having nothing but innocent fun. Too poppy to be considered outsider music, too eccentric to be called mainstream, Stereo Total live in their own spaced-out universe, incorporating European art rock, punk, J-pop, lounge music, and Krautrock. Imagine if Stereolab sang adorable little ditties, sung not by an aloof Laetitia Sadier, but by a coquettish Vanessa Paradis instead, and you'll have a good idea how this album sounds.
The German guy, Brezel Göring, handles all the synthesizers and the little guitars that are present on the record, while Françoise Cactus plays the Karen Carpenter role in the duo (that's right) by handling the lead vocals and drums, and the music they create is something that is impossible to resist, no matter what language they choose to sing in. The opening track "Musique Automatique" is a Surrealist exercise in French wordplay, combined with a "Warm Leatherette" new wave feel, as the intentionally stiff Göring and the childlike Cactus trade off lines that are just a silly spontaneous riff: "La musique automatique . . . hysterique . . . hypnotique . . . cosmique." You don't have to be a French major to understand this, and once you catch on, it's terrific. "L'Amour a 3", which appears later on the album in English ("Love With the Three of Us"), is space-pop at its finest, deliriously euphoric ear candy that has the duo comparing the kinky subject matter to communism.
"Les Chansons D'A" is a wide-eyed love song ("All my songs are love songs"), while "Kleptomane" is a rousing tribute to compulsive shoplifting, during which Cactus sings about her palpitating heart as she helps herself to anything and everything, from hair curlers to grenadine. On the wonderful "Forever 16" (which is reprised in Turkish at the end of the album), Cactus pulls off a better Lolita act than Britney and Christina put together, singing, "No, I'm not a girlie . . . But you know it could be as well / If you call me mademoiselle." "Le Diable" is a bizarre, yet, once again, extremely playful song about seeing the devil on London's Carnaby Street; by this point you're so inundated with the childlike tunes that you find yourself going, "Yeah, okay, whatever." You just want more.
Stereo Total do manage for a bit of variety on the record, thankfully, toning things down on several tracks. The melancholy "Adieu Adieu" is a supercool blend of modern synth pop and the sultry vocal stylings of Brigitte Bardot, while the ballad "Ypsilon" has a heavily vocoder-ed Cactus singing a love song, in German, mind you, about a robot (yes, a robot). When she sings, "Die ganze nacht funktionert er / Ypsilon muss niemals schlafen," which translates as, "All night long he functions / Ypsilon is never sleepy," you get a pretty good idea where Cactus is going with this. Several cover versions of obscure European songs are also done on the record, most notably, the art-funk of "Wir Tanzen in 4-Eck" ("We're Dancing in a Square"), and the insane, raucous pop of "Nationale 7", a tribute to the major highway that leads travelers from Paris to the Mediterranean Coast.
Five bonus tracks are included on the new Kill Rock Stars re-release, and they extend the fun even longer. "The Monster", a tune that uses more guitars than usual, is a strange, yet hook-laden song that previously appeared on Kill Rock Star's Fields and Streams compilation earlier this year. "Je Reve Encore de Toi" is a dead-on, perfect French electronic interpretation of the Velvet Underground's overlooked classic song "Stephanie Says", while "I Think Somebody Should Call the Love Doctor" is a whimsical melange of various moans, groans, and shrieks. Best of all though, is the rip-roaring cover of the theme song from the Japanese TV show Astroboy, a song choice that's so inspired, it's like a cherry atop the biggest banana split you've ever eaten.
Musique Automatique practically explodes with ebullience. Its joy, its unbridled enthusiasm is so contagious that it's guaranteed to brighten your day, no matter how gloomy. Francoise Cactus and Brezel Göring also show us that, along with possessing their own unique, twisted pop sense, they also have some serious musical chops, and are versatile enough to venture into different genres while still maintaining their trademark sound. Whether you play it for a bunch of five-year-olds who want to bounce around for 45 minutes (erm, not counting the songs about threesomes and robot sex, of course), or just to hear something a little more cheerful than the new Sigur Ros record, this album does the job perfectly.