Album Review: Stereolab: Electrically Possessed [Switched On Volume 4]

Few bands navigate liminal spaces quite as easily as majestic avant-pop act Stereolab. There has always been an effortlessness to their music – a breezy insouciance in Laetitia Sadier’s creamy vocals – no matter what murky waters their lyrics often dip into. It’s hard to imagine current bands like Jock Strap, Toro Y Moi, or Hen Ogledd existing without their influence.

This, the fourth instalment in the Switched On series, takes tracks from sessions in the period 1999-2008, and is a delight in sonic exploration. But this time there is less emphasis on the Situationists and the Paris riots of ’68, and more focus on sci-fi. For every catchy indie floor filler in the band’s 30-year career, like ‘French Disko’ or ‘Ping Pong’, there has been a more esoteric response, a ‘John Cage Bubblegum’, or ‘How To Play Your Internal Organs Overnight’. Here, in the band’s more fragmentary musical angles, is where Electrically Possessed sits.

Stereolab have never been afraid of blurring genres, or being playful or perverse regarding song direction. Co-founder Tim Gane has spoken about enjoying the porous nature of analog synths, in terms of what shapes can be created, and these instruments are ubiquitous here. ‘The Super- It’ could be one of the more conventional tracks here; yet even so, its spongy funk rubs up between chanson and electronic pioneer Delia Derbyshire’s space age squelches.

Elsewhere too, the odd vacillations in sound persist, from ‘Dimension M2’, a hypnotic incantation which melts halfway through, transforming into a locked groove with a choir seemingly from outer space, through to the woozy exotica of ‘Nomus et Phusis’, and the frantic meanderings of ‘Fried Monkey Eggs’, represented here both in its instrumental and vocal forms.

The clear highlight though, comes in the brilliantly titled ‘Free Witch and No Bra Queen’, a trippy, chopped-up jazz slink which comes on like soundtrack music to the most sexy sixties sci-fi film you have yet to see, evoking both the wide-eyed passion of Jane Fonda in Vadim’s Barbarella, and the danger of a dystopian future in Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451.

Never taking the easy route is Stereolab’s raison d’etre – who else could start a new album with a nine-and-a-half minute epic called ‘Outer Bongolia’?

With 25 tracks, they could have run the risk of testing the attention of the listener, but there are no such concerns – there is enough audacity to satisfy the most diehard Stereolab fan, and even more intrigue and hooks to draw in newcomers. To quote lyrics from an earlier track of theirs, ‘Heavy Denim’, reprised on the album as a deconstructed loop: ‘We’re not here to get bored / We are here to disrupt / To have the time of our lives’.

Electrically Possessed (Switched On Vol. 4) is out now via Warp/Duophonic


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