CD Review of Serene Velocity: A Stereolab Anthology by Stereolab

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Serene Velocity: A Stereolab Anthology
starstarstarstarno star Label: Elektra
Released: 2006
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Has there ever been another electronica group as successful and revered as Stereolab? You might want to say that Kraftwerk have, but that group has always relied on the core idea of the machine making the music. Is it even fair to paint Stereolab into the whole electronica niche? Probably not. The beauty of the group is in the way they take the organic and make it sound machinated. Take, for instance, the great tune “Motoroller Scalatron” from Emperor Tomato Ketchup, with its simple Velvet Underground-inspired chords and rhythm. The difference is Stereolab take that inspiration and lock it down into something that sounds like this automated loop, yet the loop never gets stale. Such is raw talent.

The band has been together for what seems like forever, issuing tons of side items alongside their official albums. They’ve worked with such revered avant-garde groups as Nurse with Wound and have run the musical gamut from noisy electronic sounds to the loungiest of cocktail ephemera that one could imagine. Through it all they have maintained a surreal political and philosophical bent to their lyrics. Again, from “Motoroller Scalatron”: “What’s society built on? / It’s built on, built on bluff / Built on bluff, built on trust.” All this to a groove you can dance to and mellow out with.

So now here is a single-disc distillation of some of Stereolab’s finest moments, culled from both popular picks and fan favorites. Indeed, it’s hard not to get swept up into the rhythmic pulse of “Ping Pong” or the hypnotic swirl of “Wow and Flutter.” When the band is on, they’re on tight, and luckily this compilation does a great job at exposing those pristine moments. Some tracks, like “Cybele’s Reverie,” with its string section, take the surreal qualities of the group to heightened extremes, giving the listener a sense of unease even though it’s all quite pretty. You can listen to this track and see the seeds of a band like the Fiery Furnaces being sown right before your ears.

Then there are items like “Metronomic Underground,” with one of those patented locked-down hypnotic grooves that builds up over the course of seven minutes with the band adding bits of distortion to the mix before finally being consumed by it at the end in an attempt to counter the mechanical aspect of the sound, but merely adding to it and sucking the listener in deeper. In opposite of this, there’s the beautiful “Miss Modular,” from Dots and Loops, that is as lush as the band ever got while still maintaining that danceable core groove. Wonderful backing vocals, nifty horns and cool acoustic rhythm guitars pushed to the front of the mix.

Contrast that to the earlier “Crest,” which finds the band absolutely raging on their instruments, seemingly in a fit of finding that groove and wondering how to extract it. Or even “Jenny Ondioline,” which seems like nothing more than a My Bloody Valentine-influenced number. It’s quite fine, but nothing like the grooves that would be created when the band found their own footing. Luckily that wouldn’t take too long, as the album that song is taken from (Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements) was followed up with Mars Audiac Quintet, which is where the band really came into their own.

A lot of that maturation had to do with the band expanding its lineup and being able to record tastier tracks. Obviously, there’s little musical relation between a lush tune like “Infinity Girl” and “French Disco,” even though the two tracks are absolute must-haves. But hearing the evolution of Stereolab is an interesting experience. Granted, not everything on this compilation is a must-hear, but for single-disc distillations, this is pretty damn tight nonetheless. Of course, it also works wonderfully as a nice introduction to the group, who have released far too many things to keep track of sanely. So if you’ve never grooved to the ‘lab, then step right up and enjoy some of their best moments right here.

~Jason Thompson