“There is no sense in being interested in an ill person/Or unwell a society if one cannot believe their readiness/And the capacity for proper recovery”
- “Metronomic Underground” – 7:54
- “Cybele’s Reverie” – 4:42
- “Percolator” – 3:47
- “Les Yper-Sound” – 4:05
- “Spark Plug” – 2:29
- “OLV 26” – 5:42
- “The Noise of Carpet” – 3:05
- “Tomorrow Is Already Here” – 4:56
- “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” – 4:37
- “Monstre sacre” – 3:44
- “Motoroller Scalatron” – 3:48
- “Slow Fast Hazel” – 3:53
- “Anonymous Collective” – 4:32
Stereolab are a musical anomaly. They are more of an amalgamation of different genre, never united under one banner for long. One moment, they are a Krautrock band, another, they make a hip hop track and the next, they revert back to Velvet Underground -style funk. It’s a formula that can very easily end up as a directionless mess, and has no business working as well as it does on Stereolab’s 1996 album Emperor Tomato Ketchup. What holds the smorgasbord of ideas together is some first-class production, assisted by Tortoise’s John McEntire. The somewhat unique production style allowed incredibly textured, multilayered sounds among an array of different channels (including vocal harmonies, strings and electronica), resulting in a crystal clear-sound where no detail is lost.
At the head of the project are the seductive vocals of Lætitia Sadier, who sings in both English and her native French and really helps to give the band a recognisable identity. At the beginning of the 1990s, Stereolab were beginning to move away from rock and experiment more with pop-centric sounds, while still incorporating their lost list of diverse stylistic influences. Emperor Tomato Ketchup was a critical success on release, and was the band’s best shot at breaking into the mainstream. Sadly, they were to remain an underground sensation for a long time, although the album did see a lot of airplay on campus radio stations. Today, they are deservedly more recognised in the music world.
Sadier, and by extension Stereolab themselves, have always written songs with famously politically and philosophically charged lyrics.
“Basically, I want to change the world. I want to make people think about how they live every day, shake them a bit.” – Lætitia Sadier
1994’s single “Ping Pong” created quite a buzz for its political lyrics, which some critics believed espoused a Marxist belief system. On Ketchup, these ideas still come into play, but less prominently. The lyrics written in French wouldn’t translate as they were originally intended, so I’ll talk about those in English. On the track “Tomorrow Is Already Here”, Sadier laments about the corruption and lust for power in the political institution, which she sees had noble beginnings in serving its people: “Originally this set up was to serve society/Now the roles have been reversed that want society/To serve the institutions.” Some cuts go down a far more poetic and philosophical route, like on “The Noise of Carpet”, where she discusses ideas such as “fashionable cynicism” in an unknown character who seems to have become disillusioned with the world at the same time as battling some sort of mental illness. The character is built up as having a defeatist outlook on life. with the narrator presumably acting as someone who knows the character closely, as they encourage the pessimist to have a more positive attitude: “This world will give you anything/As long as you will want to.”
In many ways, Stereolab were pioneers, yet simultaneously breathing new life into forgotten or stale genres and making them contemporary again. And they were at the top of their game doing so.