Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: Stereolab – Mars Audiac Quintet

on November 20, 2010, 12:32pm

The 2010 MoogFest in Asheville, NC was an amazing collection of contemporary musical acts peppered with a few artists dripping of nostalgia. The majority of, if not all, the artists invited to play utilized various Moog equipment, such as synthesizers and Theremins, in their repertoire. However, of all the artists indebted to Robert Moog and his creations, I found one group noticeably absent. In the entirety of music’s canon, when I think of Moog related bands, I do not think of Wendy Carlos or Devo; I think of Stereolab.

When we hear the sounds created by Moog synthesizers and Theremins, due to our visual conditioning via much of 1950s films and TV, we immediately can imagine a scenario involving either the future, outer space, or both. Predating the space-age/lounge revival of the late 90s-early 00s by almost a decade, Stereolab utilized much of the same material as revivalist samplers. Rather than rehashing the sounds of Martin Denny or Les Baxter, Stereolab and its music are an extension of those nostalgic sounds from the “Space Age Bachelor Pad” era. While embracing the art rock aesthetic of Krautrock acts like Neu! and Faust, Stereolab’s predilection for 60’s lounge-pop, bossa nova, exotica, and outsider music (all with Moog enhancement) meld into a gorgeously textured sound.

Nowhere else in Stereolab’s catalog is this perhaps most evident than on the band’s 1994 release Mars Audiac Quintet. Setting aside their more obtuse and experimental inclinations, Stereolab’s second major American release, following Transient Random Noise-Bursts With Announcements, saw the band focusing more on its space-age pop sound, tightening up its songwriting and sharpening its approach. This refocusing resulted in a product that blends sweet synth melodies, lush pop vocals, and socio-political lyrics in such a textured manner that not even MTV realized that by playing “Ping Pong” in widespread rotation, it was spreading the band’s pro-Marxian philosophy. To be fair though, the band’s political stance was discreetly weaved into deceptively simple hypnotic drones and synthesized tones (and often French lyrics) that make up much of Stereolab’s soundscape.

The hypnotic drones are evident from the beginning of Mars Audiac Quintet with “Three Dee Melodie” repeating a series of sustained notes fed through a synthesizer as the members add various layers. This is Stereolab’s modus operandi – simple tones built upon each other to create an intricate design. “Wow and Flutter” not only demonstrates this effectively, but upon closer listen reveals a far more complicated arrangement enhanced by Laetitia Sadier’s vocals and a marimba solo courtesy of Sean O’Hagan.

O’Hagan left Stereolab during the making of Mars Audiac Quintet to form a new project, the High Llamas; however, before leaving he left a large mark on the album. From the previously mentioned marimba solo to delicate textures of “Des Etoiles Electroniques” or bubbly pop fever of “Ping Pong”, O’Hagan’s multi-faceted talents cover the entire album and expand upon Stereolab’s sound, helping to broaden the band’s appeal. On the album closer “Fiery Yellow”, O’Hagan comes straight out of the “Quiet Village” with a bossa nova-influenced lullaby built around a seven note marimba line that would do honor to the exotica gods.

The bossa nova rhythm is heard in a few spots on the album including the delightfully light “International Colouring Contest”, a song about eccentric outsider musician Lucia Pamela. Taking its title from a never-ending contest held by Pamela and including a sampling of her voice and giggle, “International Colouring Contest” is a heartfelt tribute to the self-proclaimed “missionary of interstellar peace”.

The entire song “Outer Accelerator” reminds me of post-rock forerunners Pell Mell’s album Interstate. Giving the illusion of an instrumental, the song builds for over two minutes before Sadier’s vocals glide into position. Near the end of the track, the band’s eccentricities take over, turning what was a slightly driven melody into a mild case of sonic abrasion. All throughout Mars Audiac Quintet are tiny little hooks and melodies that embed themselves into your psyche. The repeating “horns” on “Anamorphose” or the pseudo-rock like percussion of “Three Longers Later” help elevate Stereolab above the one-trick ponies and coattail riders.

Considering their sound to have become a bit too prevalent in the underground music scene by the time of Mars Audiac Quintet’s release, Stereolab sought to change their sound and direction slightly, further improving upon their unique style and sound with the critically acclaimed follow-up Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Perhaps a loose analogy could be Emperor Tomato Ketchup is to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as Mars Audiac Quintet is to Revolver, but only as so far as the band is concerned.

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