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The Magic Of Stereolab: Electrically Possessed Reviewed
Zara Hedderman , February 25th, 2021 09:17

The fourth volume of Stereolab's Switched On series gathers together deep cuts from 1999 - 2008 revealing a band whose joyfulness and ingenuity persistently wrongfooted the critics, finds Zara Hedderman

Photo by David Cowland

The year is 1999. Teen pop stars Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera rule the airwaves with their respective debut releases, having re-emerged from the embers of the Mickey Mouse Club. Competing for chart positions and radio-play were artists with a toe dipped in the mainstream who continued to eschew conformity with their LPs. There was Beck’s profound genre-blending on the audacious Midnite Vultures, Fiona Apple’s unfiltered retort to journalists with a ninety-word album title, and Rage Against The Machine leading a new generation towards protest with The Battle of Los Angeles. These are but a few outliers of the alternative scene who challenged structures with their art and received varying degrees of praise for their individualism. It’s fascinating, then, to observe how Stereolab, the English-French group formed in 1990 by Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier, were mercilessly criticised for adopting similarly assured and uncompromising routes with their own music during that same period.

In the midst of this cultural purple-patch for experimentally inclined pop, Stereolab’s sixth record, Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night (a title Fiona Apple surely would have appreciated) was subjected to scathing takedowns from a number of leading music publications. In one bizarre review, which included an imagined email thread between the writer and Jesus Christ, the avant-pop group were blamed for being boring and predictable: “I don’t think I need to hear the new Stereolab. I’m pretty sure I can guess how it sounds,” dismissed the writer. Meanwhile, another critic drew comparisons to Hitler and rendered Stereolab’s melting pot of 60s lounge arrangements and meandering hyper-stylised instrumentation as “pompous pseudo-intellectual ideas.” Such unnecessarily acrimonious assessments of their songwriting have since been rescinded with retrospective reappraisals of their repertoire in recent times. As ever, hindsight is a powerful tool.

Before delving fully into Electrically Possessed, the fourth volume in Stereolab’s Switched On series, an awareness of the context in which these songs were initially conceived is useful. Recalling some musical highlights of 1999 before considering – and subsequently trying to understand – the maligned critical position Stereolab found themselves in is fascinating to contemplate years later. They too merged a myriad of musical styles from Brazilian tropicalia to heavy krautrock and hip-hop beats, incorporated politically inclined lyricism all while experimenting with conventional song-structures and time signatures. Yet, unlike their peers, they were brandished predictable and soulless.

Revisiting these deep-cuts from their catalogue and presenting them to audiences in an official capacity some twenty years later reaffirms an appreciation for Stereolab’s inimitable innovation. Electrically Possessed, featuring previously unreleased outtakes and rarities recorded between 1999 (immediately after the release of Cobra And Phases) and 2008 (in which they released their ninth studio album, Chemical Chords), reminds Stereolab’s audience – as if they could ever have forgotten - that they are a group of musicians comfortable with excess and absurdism. Moreover, it captures the essence of how they always found an equilibrium between futurism and nostalgia, surrealism and simplicity. The fantasy born from their weightless and bright arrangements, often featuring wordless melodies sung by Sadier for added texture, however, is not devoid of lofty sentiments that bring us back to reality. Sometimes that’s delivered as a plea to be a freedom fighter (‘Nomus et Phusis’) or simply, “Fous moi la paix.” Translation: Leave me alone. That’s just one way in which duality permeates Stereolab’s work.

On first listen, the complexities of their compositions can be intimidating. In spite of this, there’s always a great warmth emanating from the cosmic arrangements drenched in 1960s motifs that make Stereolab extremely personable. What’s more, they have a sense of humour – if their chuckle-inducing juvenile song-titles like ‘Free Witch And No Bra Queen’ or ‘Fried Monkey Jelly’ are anything to go by. And while Stereolab could be regarded as the epitome of a singular act, the latest instalment of the Switched On compilations, the first of which released in 1992, shows that for all of Stereolab’s unique eccentricities and perceived impenetrability, they regularly displayed tendencies within their songwriting that aligned them with their contemporaries.

There are plenty of instances across the twenty-five tracks that attest to this. The most obvious one on this occasion is the aforementioned Beck. There are echoes of what the American musician cultivated through his partnership with The Dust Brothers on ‘Monkey Jelly’ (especially ‘Monkey Jelly [Beats]’) and ‘Barock-lastic’, an intriguing looped bass riff punctuated with spiked guitar and twinkling electric keys. ‘Jump Drive Shut Out’, carries on with the Beck-isms with a subtle hip-hop beat that ebbs and flows into a funky motorik disco bass riff surrounded by glitchy effects. In bursts, this track also heralds Daft Punk and Super Furry Animals. Elsewhere, glimmers of grunge appear on the dense ‘Heavy Denim Loop Pt 2’, while ‘Explosante Fix’ delivers a guitar part reminiscent of late-era Talking Heads. It’s these moments that add diversity to the compilation and increasingly captivate the audience outside of Stereolab’s signature happy-go-lucky future-nostalgic compositions.

In many ways, delving into Electrically Possessed is akin to experiencing The Wizard of Oz for the first time. Initially, the aural stimulation is overwhelming, much like the shock of yellow bricks set to guide the audience through the fantastical world. Their sound is awash with technicolour and special effects. The trance-like looped melody of ‘I Feel The Air {Of Another Planet}’ is our ticket to the surrealist surroundings populated with exaggerated feel-good numbers ‘Variation One’ and ‘Outer Bongolia’ and sparse Krautrock instrumentals (‘Pandora’s Box of Worms’); both moods providing perfect portals of escapism. The further we venture into Electrically Possessed the more unpredictable the trajectory of the album becomes. The latter half of the album maintains their trademark high-energy instrumentation and eruptions of sound, however, a total shift in tone presents the undeniable highlight of the compilation. ‘Calimero’, a woozy Serge Gainsbourg-style arrangement amplified by the Oz-like commanding presence of art-folk chanteuse Brigitte Fontaine is one that lingers in your ear long after you listen to it. Originally released in 1999, the depth of Fontaine’s almost menacing cadence is complimented by a smooth array of languid drum-fill and sparks of brass creating the illusion that it was kept in a time-capsule from the 1960s.

While it’s always valuable to critically examine music, it’s equally rewarding to simply sit back, press play and switch off. That certainly is the case when entering the world of Stereolab. Where the listener’s sole obligation is to follow the path they’ve laid for us and let yourself become completely enveloped in the music, clicking your heels together three times when you need to return to reality. Perhaps this is where the music critics of twenty-years ago went wrong, they didn’t allow themselves to believe in the magic of Stereolab.