The Future Sound of Music?

Stereolab Stereolab
with Mouse On Mars and Plush
The Palladium (The Venue Formerly Known as Graceland)
Vancouver, B.C.
Friday, November 21, 1997

Review by Darren Gawle
Stereolab photography by Jeff Hornby

The last time I saw Stereolab was on the second stage at Lollapalooza '94. There were several thousand Surrey teens there who didn't have the patience for any band whose name wasn't 'Green Day' or 'Smashing Pumpkins,' and considering the ignominious manner in which Nick Cave was dispatched from the main stage, it seemed that Stereolab had the biggest 'odds against' factor since Little Bighorn -- but they ended up getting a damned encore. Stereolab have progressed more than a little since that time, with each album sounding unique within the band's catalogue but instantly recognizable as per who created it. Dots and Loops could be the closest they've come yet to producing space-age lounge music, and tonight 'space-age' and 'lounge' are the operative terms. First, the lounge...

Stereolab Plush inhabit a singular world, one of red shag-pile carpeting, black naugahyde love seats and lava lamps -- in fact, Plush could be the world's first ever indie make-out music. Debut single "Found a Little Baby" is certainly an exquisite example of their retro sound (take note: run your guitar through a Leslie rotary speaker and you've got instant 1970!), but it soon becomes apparent that Plush have found their formula and are sticking to it. Imagine a band trying to come up with 45 minutes worth of variations on Pink Floyd's "Breathe" and you have Plush, live. That, and the first two songs are sloppy beyond all redemption; once they've hit their stride, it's lovely sounding stuff, but in the end even a change in tempo seems too much too ask Plush for.

Stereolab German duo Mouse On Mars opt for the 'space-age' quotient in tonight's agenda and get things going by making you wonder if the last time you heard something like this was either when the furnace packed it in or when the washing machine packed it in. Basically a continuation of John Cage's 'anything can be music' philosophy, MOM take their apparently home-made setup and prove that under the right circumstances, metallic clanking can sound like an oboe. Or a piano, maybe. And just when you're expecting things to turn into a smorgasbord of elitist experimentalization, MOM goes and adds a drumbeat to the whole thing, so that at least if you don't 'get' the music, you can groove along with it. Mouse On Mars' soft-sell approach to experimental music provides hope that the genre may not end up turning into a parody of itself the way experimental cinema has.

Stereolab Stereolab's sound is nicely bookended by tonight's opening acts -- almost a tongue-in-cheek revue of what people in the 1960's thought the music of the future would sound like. This would, of course, be banal if it weren't for the Tim Gane's single-mindedness and attention to detail. Maybe he's here to set the record straight -- that maybe the musical philosophers were right, that maybe music should have ended up sounding this way. Certainly there are few enough other artists who could come up with a tune like "Crest" -- which does nothing other than oscillate between E and F# for six minutes while Laetitia Sadier drones "If there's been a way to build it, there'll be a way to destroy it / Things are not all that out of control" -- and have it sound like the most compelling thing ever performed.

Stereolab Starting with an un-phased version of "Diagonals" from new release Dots and Loops, Stereolab sets the tone for an evening of their music which veers from songs which make you wish they'd packed a few extra samplers along for the tour (without its brass track, "Percolator" sounds merely average alongside Stereolab's other material) to songs which exude enough hypnotic intensity to last a lifetime ("Metronomic Underground" segues into a particularly nasty "Sadistic"). Then, of course, there's the sleighbell extravaganza that is "The Flower Called Nowhere" and you're reminded that there's just over thirty shopping days until Christmas. Stereolab, you are cynical tools of the retail industry -- J'accuse!

The show winds to a close with Mouse On Mars and Stereolab treating us to a protracted jam session. The surprise here is that, considering the High Llamas have finished their set but a few blocks away at the Starfish Room, frequent Stereolab collaborator Sean O'Hagan doesn't join in on this ersatz supergroup. No matter; Stereolab are masters at creating enough of a vibe to render any extra embellishments pointless -- there's not many bands this reticent (Tim Gane's stage antics are reserved to nodding his head vaguely with his eyes closed) who can still produce a show of this calibre.

First published in Drop-D Magazine on December 15, 1997

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