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by AjD

Buy Refried Ectoplasm

Stereolab knows the mighty power of the drone. Poppish, reedy drone of farfisas and guitars through cheesy amplifiers weaving through burbling, popping Moog synthesizers. Laetetia Sadier sings little socialist ditties harkening back to the days when Situationism was considered a school of political philosophy rather than just a bunch of French guys who recaptioned comic strips and made cool posters.

They're a synthesized throwback of west-coast sixties garage rock, 1960s-vintage multitracked studio recordings of synthesizer music, and folk singing. Three disparate segments of the music recording community that would've spit on each other if they were in the same room. Right on.

However, unlike Pizzicato Five, which appropriates 25-year-old musical styles and intentionally plays off the vapidness of the previous generation's pop-music whimsy from the point of view of ourselves in the disillusioned nineties, Stereolab is more interested in applying what we've learned in the intervening years. They owe as much to Walter Carlos and movie soundtrack backfill as they do to Spacemen 3 and My Bloody Valentine.

Stereolab names its tunes after studio equipment and terminology of audio technology. Stereolab knows the value of beating on the same chord for five solid minutes. Stereolab make perky little pop tunes that swing and jig and dance happily about, and fuzz it all up just for fun. Stereolab sings in French and sounds mighty pleased about it sometimes. Even when Laetetia Sadier sings in English, her vocals are mixed level with the fuzzy noise drone keyboard hum, and I can't distinguish the words. If this wiggy little magazine I wrote for would buy me a really good stereo system I'll give this CD another listen and tell you what she says.

The whole album is a compilation of A-sides, B-sides, unreleased tracks, and the liner notes detail what color the vinyl was when they came out. A lot of the singles were intentionally limited releases (mostly one or two thousand each), so if you don't have a collector's fetish, this is a good place to see what the band does outside of their usual album releases.

"Animal or Vegetable (A Wonderful Wooden Reason)" is a looping riffy jam that sounds kinda' like a couple different songs stitched together. Nurse With Wound (the band / lab experiment) remixed it and makes it jump about at odd moments. You can hardly tell it's a bunch of tape bits spliced together, rather than a band vamping on the same chord for a dozen minutes. At least, not 'til the end of the track, where it sounds like the master tape is being fed back and forth through the tape deck in an epileptic frenzy. The other tracks are variously pop-oriented or drone-oriented. But the drones are poppish and the pop tunes drone. I guess the real distinguishing factor is how strong the backbeat is and how often Laetetia is singing actual verses rather than chanting.

The catch is that, even when they're doing 'loose' 'experimental' stuff, it's not much different from their usual album releases. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Maybe they're less overtly poppish, more rocking, but the difference is subtle. It's also hard to tell; some of these tracks are four years old and there isn't any distinguishable evolution of style through the years. "Tempter" is a good compromise: the rhythm is supplied by a mechanical-sounding tapeloop and a faint synthesized thudding, but otherwise the Farfisa organ does its reedy drony thing and Laetetia does her singing thing, punctuated by Mary Hansen singing "Dum da-de dum da-de dum...". A synth warbles and swings between the left and right speakers like a pendulum.

The band appropriates sixties and seventies imagery for their album covers. "Refried Ectoplasm" marks the return of that funky Peter Max-like smiling guy with the gunsight on his pointing finger. If I have a complaint, it's not with the music but that the print is almost the same color as the paper-bag-brown cardboard jacket. Reading the track listings takes patience and practice, and if you're as much of a wonk as I am to care to read the production notes, you're DOOMED, man. Do what I did -- scan the jacket art and screw around with the color levels until you get something readable.

Of course, if you get the vinyl version of this album, the print is larger and has better contrast. Either they're bothering to reward the intrepid record-collecting throwbacks, or somebody wasn't paying attention somewhere along the way. Speaking of not paying attention, the CD is in a sleeve so tight that I scratched my copy while trying to claw it out. It's no fun to hear the reedy noisy drone mellow harshed by a 500 skip-per-minute remix.

I have no idea if that's actually good or not. Maybe I'm not into the groove of the thing. I'm still better attuned to 33 1/3 skip beats.

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