On the same night I saw Michael Rother at Synästhesie in 2019, I also saw Stereolab. Around that time, they’d reissued most of their back catalog. Since then, they still haven’t made any new music, but they’ve released two new double-disc editions of the Switched On series – Electrically Possessed last year, mostly covering latter-day obscurities (which I thoroughly enjoyed), and Pulse of the Early Brain this year, which is more of a mixed bag, but still quite good.
I couldn’t figure out if there was an opener, but unfortunately, there was. Now, I’ve seen some great opening bands in my time (I mean, Chicks on Speed opening for Rother just last month was awesome!), so I usually like to take the chance if I haven’t done my research. But just in case, I usually do a bit of research so I can skip things I’m reasonably confident I won’t enjoy (e.g. The Smashing Pumpkins’ 2012 tour opener, whose name I don’t recall and I didn’t even mention in the review!). And in this case, I think the less I say about Julien Gasc, the better. He appeared alone, without even an instrument, and sang lounge pop songs without much movement. I guess he had a decent voice. That’s probably the only positive thing I can say, so I’ll stop there.
Thankfully Stereolab was another matter. They started with the bouncy but somewhat unexciting “Neon Beanbag”, but then picked things up with “Low Fi” from the 1992 EP of the same name, recently reissued (finally!) on the aforementioned Switched On Volume 5: Pulse of the Early Brain. The rendition was relatively tame, but had the classic cozy groove and familiar needling guitar and crunchy keyboard sounds. This set the mold for the night: intermittent album cuts interspersed among a wealth of relative obscurities, most of which can be found on the various Switched On releases. It’s almost like they were trying to do the opposite of their 2019 tour, where their choices formed a bell curve over their discography and mostly focused on the core albums. This time, they overwhelmingly picked from the first few and last few years of their original career. Given the recent releases, that makes sense, although they still haven’t reissued their last few albums. And since every single one of the early tracks that they played was a jam, I’m certainly not gonna complain.
That said, some songs worked better than others. “Harmonium” was already a strong, upbeat rocker, and then Tim Gane tapped a pedal that activated a loud, swirling overdrive that shook the building, reaching levels of intensity that weren’t even present on the recorded version. But while I liked the idea of trying to bring the looping vocal layers of “I Feel the Air (of Another Planet)” to the stage, it didn’t quite fulfill the vision. Bassist Xavier Muñoz Guimera and keyboardist Joe Watson each added vocal parts, but neither of their voices hits the same way Mary Hansen’s did, and both were just a bit too low and dull in the mix. (The mix overall, including the backing vocals, was quite a bit better than the 2019 Synästhesie show, but still not perfect.) Performing the full four-part suite of “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse” was another bold choice, and while I like the twists and turns in the recording, on stage it felt a bit jarring and even tiring by the end. But “U.H.F. - MFP” and “Mountain” were both great rockers in their early style, and “Super-Electric” was another absolute peak performance. The perfect, locked-in groove of all the instruments was a delight to bathe in while Lætitia Sadier charmingly sang about nuclear apocalypse. They extended the song into an improvised jam, then brought it down to almost nothing before tearing into another round of the chorus.
The encore was also well-chosen: the strangely sweet b-side “Allures”, followed by another raucous rocker extolling anarchism (“French Disko”), and then an extended space jam. Ironically, “Simple Headphone Mind” was originally Nurse with Wound’s cut-up reworking of “The Long Hair of Death”. But they didn’t play “Long Hair”. They played “Simple Headphone Mind”, including the slightly disturbing, time-stretched vocal samples repeating the title. It started as a kosmische jam based around Watson’s synth noodling and guitar riffing from Gane and Sadier, but increasingly got wilder and weirder, eventually culminating in a heavy, driving version of the final section of “Excursions into ‘Oh, A-Oh’”. That was an excellent way to end the show!
I wouldn’t could call Stereolab’s performance incredible, but it was impressive and a lot of fun to watch them dance through the many sides of their career, even if I wish they’d’ve played literally anything from Mars Audiac Quintet (1994), still my favorite of their albums. The musicianship was great, and the balance of styles was well-managed. They gave time to their more formalistic and precise pop experimentation as well as their rawer bursts of energy and protest, although I wish they’d been a bit noisier and less shy with the distortion pedals. I imagine that a casual fan might have been a bit confused by the scattershot approach to their discography and sound, but for a dedicated listener, this was quite a treat.
01. Neon Beanbag
02. Low Fi
03. Eye of the Volcano
04. Refractions in the Plastic Pulse
05. U.H.F. - MFP
06. Miss Modular
10. I Feel the Air (of Another Planet)
11. Pack Yr Romantic Mind
14. French Disko
15. Simple Headphone Mind → Excursions into “Oh, A-Oh” [second half]
Julien Gasc: F
P.S. Thanks to Alyssa and Uwe!