Stereolab @ the Theatre at the Ace on 10.20.19

I’m feeling inspired tonight, so I’m going to cross off a second show from my backlog concert coverage list. Plus, in my previous post, I did mention that I’d take care of a couple of these oldies this eve. So here’s to seconds …

This one’s from longtime indie favs and audio pioneers Stereolab, who’ve been noticeably absent for the last decade, disbanded until recent, reuniting for a series of shows this year.

I’m going to start by saying that Stereolab is one of those bands that were ahead of their time … or at least, they were for me. And quite literally. In other words, I never really got them when they were at their creative peak, which is a shame. Because back then, they were a formidable six-piece of eclectic experimentalism, fronted by two female vocalists, Lætitia Sadier and Mary Hansen, who together, shared an uncanny sing-song interplay, mesmerizing and haunting in their interaction.

Unfortunately, Hansen passed in ’02, a victim of a sudden accident, hit by a bus while riding her bike. Stereolab continued in her unforeseen absence until ’08, which marked their eventual separation, but were never quite the same.

I did have the opportunity to see them perform back in ’94 on Lollapalooza’s second stage. That would’ve been the year that their groundbreaking album “Mars Audiac Quintet” was released. But I was young and somewhat ignorant to their contributions, and as such, don’t entirely recall their performance … other than liking it, of course.

That said, over the years, I’ve cultivated a deeper appreciation of Stereolab’s distinctly phonic brand of unorthodox rock. They’re a tricky band to describe. Sadier alternates her vocals between English and French, the latter being her birthright. There’s a strong undercurrent of lounge, amidst a predominance of vintage analogue instruments, mainly keyboards and synths. There’s also an avant-garde pop attitude, influenced by an older ’70s movement known as “motorik,” popularized by Krautrock acts Neu! and Faust, focused on hypnotic repetition and melodic drone. I’d also toss in some funk, jazz, and Brazilian music, which tends to saturate their sound in various ebbs and flows.

Given this eclectic collection of characteristics, it’s no surprise that Stereolab were a heralded underground influencer, despite never quite hitting profound and overt cultural impact. Of course, in hindsight, the opposite seems to be true. And today, they’re widely regarded as one of the first “post-rock” groups (of the non-instrumental-only variety) to grace our ears, as well as laying all types of experimental stylistic groundwork for the decades to come.

Curiously, I’d forgotten about Stereolab, or at the very least, not listened to them for a number of years since Hansen’s death. But last year, during the mind-altering liberation known as Desert Daze, I kept hearing their seminal track “Metronomic Underground” played on the soundsystem between festival sets. And that got me hooked and baited back into rediscovering their music

So what does Stereolab sound like today? As I’ve said, I don’t have a strong enough recollection of past performances to offer a fair comparison. But as far as their Theatre at the Ace show’s concerned, I wasn’t disappointed at all. Live, their music is a bit less lounge and a whole lot more rock. The rhythms are more uptempo, and many tracks tend to veer into pseudo-improvisational tangents … which I absolutely love.

They’re far more ’60s psychedelia than I would’ve guessed, cross-pollinated with their characteristic lounge-oriented space-age Anglo-French avant-pop. There’s still nothing quite like it, imitators included. One of the stand outs is “Lo Boob Oscillator,” which starts out innocently enough as a quirky, bubbly pop number, then meanders into a tripped out extended kaleidoscopic jam that shifts you to an entirely different headspace. I’ve only got the latter half of the track here, since I wasn’t expecting it to go in this transcendent direction. But it’s worth a listen, all the same.

Stereolab perform the instrumental half of “Lo Boob Oscillator” at the Theatre at the Ace on 10.20.19.

“Blue Milk” is another tune that offers like-minded meandering indulgence. There’s an underlying tension that grips the entire 10 minute duration, offering an uneasy melodic cycle that captivates and unbalances simultaneously, ultimately resolving in a dreamy cacophonic cascade, punctuated by Sadier’s distinctly monosyllabic soft-spoken vocals and a showering of shimmery analogue synths.

Stereolab perform “Blue Milk” at the Theatre at the Ace on 10.20.19.

There’s, of course, the aforementioned “Metronomic Underground,” which is a lot less laid back than their studio recording ever was. It almost feels a bit rushed, requiring a moment of adjustment to align to their upbeat live rendition. But it works just the same, trance-inducing and mesmeric, albeit at a much different energy level. I wonder if it was always this tempo on stage, or just organically increased over time.

Stereolab perform “Metronomic Underground” at the Theatre at the Ace on 10.20.19.

I actually didn’t intend to start writing about these tracks individually, so I think I’m going to round off this post right here, and offer up a lump sum collection of remaining recordings. So to start, there’s a trio of favorites, the upbeat lounge-pop numbers “Brakhage” and “Ping Pong,” and the blistery bluster of the more rockin’ “French Disko.”

Stereolab perform “Brakhage” at the Theatre at the Ace on 10.20.19.

Stereolab performs “Ping Pong” at the Theatre at the Ace on 10.20.19.

Stereolab perform “French Disko” at the Theatre at the Ace on 10.20.19.

Lastly, I’ve got four selections, two that feature Stereolab’s more lackadaisically whimsical vintage pop musings, “The Extension Trip” and “Double Rocker,” and a pair of uppity avant analogue offerings of retro space age nostalgia, “Need to Be” and “Come and Play in the Milky Night.”

Stereolab perform “The Extension Trip” at the Theatre at the Ace on 10.20.19.

Stereolab performs “Double Rocker” at the Theatre at the Ace on 10.20.19.

Stereolab performs “Need to Be” at the Theatre at the Ace on 10.20.19.

Stereolab perform “Come and Play in the Milky Night” at the Theatre at the Ace on 10.20.19.

To wrap this all up, here’s Stereolab’s setlist (as playlist) from their Theatre at the Ace reunion tour on 10.20.19. Of the tracks I chose to skip recording, I really enjoy “Infinity Girl” and ” Miss Modular.” And in hindsight, I kinda wish I did capture both. For now, those two will have to remain as fond memories. Except this time around, albeit 25 years late, I’m actually caught up to speed with Stereolab. So I don’t think my memory will be hazed by ignorance anymore.

Anyway, enjoy this setlist as an introduction, reintroduction, or all around sampler. With any luck, Stereolab will be around again, and perhaps, even with some new material. Hopefully, this reunion sticks. Cheers and good night.