If you’ve heard that schticky polyglot pan-European lounge-act Stereo Total were a must to catch live (which is something I’ve been told over and over again), you might assume their records were (like Quintron’s or Jonathan Richman’s) simply souvenirs of their performance, meaningful only to those seeing their screwball stage routine in the flesh. Looking over the track list of this reissue of their first album, and seeing the songs they cover — Salt N Pepa’s “Push It”, KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” (with Alex Chilton, perhaps in a nod to his own infamous cover of “Boogie Shoes”, drumming), the Tee Set’s “Ma Belle Amie”, and Harpo’s “Movie Star” — does little to dispel the notion that this will be comedy music, campy sneers at the mainstream best appreciated where one can share in the laughter, encouraged by a like-minded crowd’s enthusiastic and appreciative response.
But then you’d be delightfully surprised to find that this album stands up on its own, and is enjoyable even for someone who has never seen Stereo Total perform. This loose, lo-fi collection traipses well beyond the whimsical electro-kitsch I was expecting, offering a surprisingly diverse array of songs that aren’t simply ironic and irreverent, but in fact show an unanticipated breadth of emotion to match their admirable range of European languages (singing as they do in French, German, and English), and are irresistibly charming in their offhand immediacy. Despite the band’s refusal to pander, listeners feel welcome in Stereo Total’s eccentric universe of typewriter solos, Sesame Street singalongs, cat meows, car crash sound effects, 808 beats, clumsy rockabilly solos, and scratchy record samples.
There are a few garagey takes on surf rock, including “Carte Postale”, a rendition of the Rivieras’ “California Sun” played with the spirit and the skill of a band in a high school talent show, and a few nods to early ’60s pop in general: “Morose” evokes the Santo and Johnny classic “Sleepwalk”, and “Epitaph” isolates and emulates just the best parts of the Shangri-Las’ songs, their maudlin spoken-word beginnings. Considering Stereo Total’s provenance and their eclectic approach, a Serge Gainsbourg cover would seem almost obligatory: “Je Suis Venu te Dire que Je M’en Vais”, a duet in the manner of late-period Leonard Cohen (but not so somnambulant), pays appropriate tribute adding an ambiguous, possibly solemn tone to an otherwise light-hearted album. (“Dans le Parc”, though a dirge complete with descending chord structure and heavy, crunching choruses, has its solemnity seriously undermined by its subject matter, the desire to have unobserved sex in public.)
The budget electronics that are occasionally heard lend an air of accessibility, perhaps because there’s something universally human to the desire to pluck out familiar pop songs on a cheap keyboard and hearing a band do it, without letting the lack of any special musical skill interfere, is inspirational. Though they don’t display the raw instrumental talent that Brazil’s Mutantes had, Stereo Total shares a similarly uninhibited approach with those Tropicalia pioneers, mixing genres with the same improbable combination of offhand aplomb and deadpan seriousness.
Whether they are doing ye-ye (as on their quaint cover of the Brigitte Bardot single “Moi Je Joue”), jackhammer punk (as on “Miau Miau”), bossa nova (as on “C’est la Mort”), or Weimar cabaret (as on “Johnny”), they never condescend to the style they’ve adopted, choosing instead to test its flexibility. Nowhere is this more true than with their cover of “Push It”, which reduces the song to its primal basics, revealing the violence of its sexuality without making a cheap gag of it. While their songs can sometimes sound tossed-off, they remain charming. Stereo Total never seem smug — you’re never expected to enjoy what you hear simply because the band embodies some apotheosis of what’s cool, even though these songs hang together only by the thread of the attitude they project. Instead, the band seems cool because there songs are rather than vice versa, a welcome inversion mirrored by the way their utter indifference toward the pressures to be original makes them seem wildly so.