In 1996 Anglo-French band Stereolab may not have been the most famous band in the world but they were very close to being the coolest, and this album is the proof.
Looking back on the mid-90’s music scene in Britain today, our memories selectively filtered through the eyes of a history already written a thousand times, is to imagine that little else was happening on the so-called ‘alternative’ scene but the leery beered-up exuberance of Britpop, which was effectively the moment what had been loosely known as ‘indie’ going overground. Suddenly the charts and pub jukeboxes everywhere were full of bands who just a couple of years earlier would have struggled to be heard by anyone who either wasn’t at university or a regular reader of the music press. It was in truth a pretty horrible time for music, when it seemed any band with one and a half decent songs could hit the top ten for a week or two as the major labels feverishly tried to cash in on a scene which was never really a scene anyway, but rather an arch contrivance designed to give music writers something to talk about.
I could go on (and on) about how awful Britpop actually was, and given time probably will, but for the purposes of this article the point I want to make is that there were some bands who seemed to sail through the whole period unaffected, as if what was going on was none of their business and that was just the way they liked it. Stereolab were such a band.
Centered around the couple Tim Gane (guitars/keyboards) and Laetitia Sadler (vocals/keyboards/guitars) who were the group’s primary writers and creative directors, Stereolab were heavily influenced by things as diverse as Krautrock, lounge, Velvet Underground, obscure 60’s and 70’s pop music, and electronic experimentalism. What it all added up to was a hypnotic, hughly syncopated, groove-driven sound laden with deftly catchy pop melodies, very often sung in French.
Emperor Tomato Ketchup is the apotheosis of that sound, Stereolab’s most fully-realised statement and still the best album for the uninitiated to begin with. An air of unfeasibly cool Gallic charm pervades the whole album, and in particular tracks like ‘Les Yper-Sound’, ‘Tomorrow Is Already Here’ and the single ‘Cybele’s Reverie’ are perfect examples of their off-centre pop sensibilities. This is effortlessly original music, and yet never pretentious or too artsy for it’s own good. Indeed, the verve that carries the whole record along is one of music lovers making music for other music lovers, with no regard for fashion or concessions to commerciality. It’s cool because it’s not trying to be cool. Compare that with any number of Britpop also-rans who strained so hard to be cool yet turned out to be utterly naff (yes Menswear, I mean you).
Die-hard Stereolab fans will point to albums like Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, Dots and Loops, or Peng! and in a way they would be right to do so, but on ETK they seemed to hit a perfect stride and in the year when it seemed Oasis et al had taken over the world with a highly patchy double-album full of recycled riffs and contrived attitude the good ship Stereolab sailed on regardless, confident that wherever they were going was, and still is, a damn site more interesting than that.