Some bands peak with their first album and become haunted by beginner’s luck for the rest of their career. This is not the case with Stereolab. On the contrary, Peng! (1992) prefaced English/French of group Golden age. While there will always be fans who stick like glue to a band’s fledgling releases, only a thin cult will usher in Stereolab’s scrappy under pup as the masterstroke of their catalog. The incipient organ hum of opener “Super Falling Star” foreshadows something special, however. Do the experience Peng! 30 years later, it’s like looking at a yearbook picture of a sports star who made it to the big leagues.
Four years before this yearbook photo was taken, a young Lætitia Sadier watched a band named McCarthy perform at a club in her native France, just outside Paris. Known for their communist leanings and clattering guitars, McCarthy’s fame – aside from being an early chapter in Stereolab’s history – is that their lo-fi waltz “Celestial City” was featured on NME revered C86 compilation tape.
There were two reasons behind Sadier’s decision to follow the band’s guitarist, Tim Gane, to London. One: they fell in love. Two: As she later explained, “What came out musically from the UK – and to a large extent from America as well – has always been the most interesting left side of music. In France in the 1980s, trying to form a band was quite difficult. Fortunately, one of the most influential bands of the 1990s would form in the first year of the decade. As for the “stereo” in their name, it referred to both the central duo which would remain constant until their hiatus in 2009 and the sub-label Vanguard Records.
Stereolab’s catalog stretches like a megalopolis, encompassing 13 studio albums, seven compilations (including fan-favorite Alight series) and 15 EPs. Of the acts categorized under indie rock, only Yo La Tengo could claim to rival their scale and innovative approach to genres. Provisional knowledge of Stereolab may be familiar with tracks such as “Ping Pong”, a Marxist parlor popper from Mars Audiac Quintet (1994), or the bubbly “Lo Boob Oscillator,” which prompts a cute encounter between John Cusack and Natasha Gregson Wagner in High fidelity (2000). The appropriate entry point, however, is undoubtedly the mechanical and polished textures of Stitches and loops (1997).
Produced by John McEntire of Tortoise, with whom Stereolab had a successful working relationship, Stitches and loops can be bright and approachable. However, it’s also musically complex, using syncopated rhythms and New York minimalist-style mallet instruments. He marries this pattern with an Astrud Gilberto-esque bossa nova layout and the non-pop harmonic movement of cool jazz proponents like Dave Brubeck. These ingredients are highlighted on tracks such as “Diagonals”, with its polyrhythmic marimba wavelets in 5/4 time and multi-voice brass clusters. Fork called the album “the rhythm-driven, rock-versus-rock music they had long been striving towards.” It even made Pharrell happy, as the rapper dubbed “The Flower Called Nowhere’s” swirls variegated “the best blowjob music ever.”
Other than their onomatopoeic titles, there is little overlap between Dots and Loops’ aphrodisiac brass arrangements and Peng! deluge of shoegazing guitars (a term Gane, wearing slippers, believes he inadvertently inspired). After all, the journey from Peng! to Points spans five years, three full albums, two mini-LPs and two compilations. Sadier detailed their Henry Ford approach in an interview: “Our records were written and recorded very quickly…we didn’t think about it for years like, say, Broadcast or My Bloody Valentine. There was nothing valuable in making records. We were just shuffling them, like, literally, on a treadmill.
This prolificacy is not the result of a blind obligation but of an unquenchable thirst to create and the ingenuity to sustain it. Stereolab’s second album, Transient bursts of random noise with announcements (1993), stretched the sonic spectrum further than Peng! Studio techniques were more advanced. A transcendent 18-minute opus in “Jenny Ondioline” awaited listeners halfway through, rewarding those with enough stamina. And, above all, a young Londoner named Mary Hansen joined the group.
Mary Hansen completed the band’s yearbook picture and will see Stereolab through their prodigious output of albums during the 1990s, beginning with transient and culminating, tragically, in a bicycle accident shortly after sonic dust (2001), the last to feature his sanative backing harmonies and gliding guitar counterpoints.
Peng! was recorded as four tracks, with Chills bassist Martin Kean and photographer-turned-bassist Joe Dilworth receiving their only studio album. Although the band have yet to push their avant-garde impulses to the formidable heights of the next four records, the epitome of their sound and key sonic touchpoints are present. Michael Rother’s Pedal Tip Guitar Patterns of Neu! are partially concealed under cascades of bright yellow fuzz that channel American noise-pop bands such as Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. Associated with the incessant motorbike drum beat – another foundation of krautrock – Gane’s guitar forms the backbone of many songs. ‘The Seeming and the Meaning’, one of the boiling candy-coated din of the LP, is emblematic of this, its catchy tempo thwarting the languid loops of the previous ‘You Little Shits’.
The album’s highlight is arguably its closing track, “Surrealchemist.” Gane’s guitar stays tied to one or two sometimes wobbly chords, but with an antithetical, edgy lead line on top that strongly evokes the boisterous primitivism of the Velvet Underground. Here, the rhythm is completely slowed down, and the drums are totally absent. It is an exercise in space and evolution rather than propulsion. The track’s undulating coda with its pulsating Moog “seems to stretch into sunset”, as Gane described it in the liner notes. Indeed, the sample of a rippling stream seems to suggest movement towards greener pastures. This extended instrumental section is a precursor to back catalog staples such as the aforementioned “Jenny Ondioline” and the opening gambit of Tomato Emperor Ketchup“Underground Metronomics”.
Peng! the artwork was just as vibrant and minimalistic as it sounded. The rudimentary cartoon of someone – ‘Cliff’ as the band dubbed it – shooting a gun first appeared in the Swiss magazine HOTCHA! before being used on the covers of the first two Alight volumes and the Super 45 EP, in addition to Peng!fluorescent yellow visual. The anti-war comic that gave birth to Cliff was called “Der tödliche Finger” or “The Deadly Finger”. As Gane says:[Cliff’s] an establishment figure who is ultimately shot by the forces of the revolution. In the same interview, Sadier confirms Cliff’s suitability for the Stereolab mascot, admitting that if the killing were legal, she would shoot “every president, bureaucrat, etc.”
Although the absence of Mary Hansen is felt on Peng!, Sadier’s bilingual beat is otherworldly, even when drowned out by swaying oars of guitar and organ. She provides her own backing vocals, from the poppy title track’s “ba ba” to the counterpoint conversation in “You Little Shits”, with Hansen’s vocals acting as both supporting companion and divergent foil. It was the one element of the songwriting that she had complete control over. Like she said The believer“Tim wanted to control every aspect of the music, but since he couldn’t write the lyrics, he left that to me. So I had to come up with the lyrics for all the songs.
The lyrics were the vehicle for Sadier’s socialist articulations and situationist philosophy. In “Perversion”, she denigrates the repressive idolatry of Christian society. “Out of the repression of pleasure / Something logically identical towards the light / Something much more serious than sex, drugs / Perversion could only lead to regression”, she sings, the two vocal lines spilling over each other. Elsewhere, on “K-stars,” she turns her attention to the French Surrealists while pointedly commenting on the group itself:
They were young
They were smart
And some believed
They were passionate
wildly in love
Well they were exuberant
Stereolab – “Perversion”
Although Stereolab operated, to a large extent, in a politically charged space, Peng! managed to merge the group’s militant goals with an almost zen-like appreciation of the world. Or, at the very least, what it might be – as seen in their cloistered instrumental sections and Peng! solemn title song. Known among band members as “Across the River,” “Peng! 33” is a frank statement of hope. As Sadier confides, “incredible things are happening in the world” as we “all continue to live like apes”. In other words, we go through life with our attention fixed on meaningless commodities, supporting amoral societies and giving little thought to the “magical instruments” that idle across the river – the instruments of change and revolution, of course, but also the purity of nature.
“I don’t care if the fascists have to win,” Sadier admits on “Jenny Ondioline,” “But what’s exciting is the challenge and the stimulation / That the tensions help keep the creative nerve so taut.” In this line lies the heart of Stereolab’s philosophy. By channeling their hatred of injustice into sound, words and visuals – and allowing that energy to permeate and propel their music – Stereolab have created something beautiful out of tension and disillusionment. They turned to face the river, passionate and shameless, and swam great lengths. Peng! was their first stroke. In the end – and, indeed, in the beginning – their curiosity was always far greater than their fear.