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Definitive Albums: Stereolab 'Emperor Tomato Ketchup' (1996)

The Groop Played Their Magnum Opus

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Stereolab 'Emperor Tomato Ketchup'

Stereolab 'Emperor Tomato Ketchup'

Elektra

Good is the One That Can Weave All Together

Because of their striking, singular, instantly-identifiable sound, critics are fond of charging that every Stereolab record sounds 'the same.' Such an accusation suggests, only, of someone not listening too carefully; of hearing the basics —motorik rhythm, moog synthesizers, Laetitia Sadier's bilingual coos— and not hearing beyond those.

Just as all Stereolab albums don't sound the same, so too are they not created equal. Emperor Tomato Ketchup is, clearly, more equal than others; the Groop's fourth album standing head and shoulders above the rest of their stylistically-similar catalogue.

By 1996, Stereolab had existed for six years, released three albums, and long-since perfected their initial mix of krautrock pulse, sheets of guitar noise, and blips of modular synth. Their fourth album repositioned Stereolab; no longer was this a band banging out two-chord drone-rock jams, but an ensemble playing precise, complex compositions; pop-songs built on overlapping polyrhythms and interlocking instrumental parts.

On "Tomorrow is Already Here," the song's compositional parts all sound stark, but interacting in entrancing ways; not least of all in the way flanges of guitar bounce back and forth between the left and right speakers, like a kind of productional Pong adding escalating tension with every ricochet.

"Tomorrow is Already Here" is symbolic of the changes that were afoot on Emperor Tomato Ketchup. With its considered composition and deft John McEntire production, the sound approaches Stereolab's cutesy retrofuturism with a classicist seriousness.

Built on Words/Built on Work

After taking their Neu! homage as far as it could go, Stereolab started spreading their wings with 1994's Mars Audiac Quintet, an LP which dared resuscitate the lurid kitsch of easy-listening muzak and incidentalism of BBC library music. Two years on, and they pushed things further.

Drawing from hip-hop, tropicalia, process music, modern composition, and all manner of other arcane audio tangents, Stereolab truly lived up to their name on their fourth album. Half-recorded with McEntire and his Tortoise boffins in Chicago (Stereolab landing right after Tortoise had put the finishing touches to their own classic LP, Millions Now Living Will Never Die), it's a deft audiophonic experiment, engineered with an astonishing perfection.

On the set's best cuts —"Tomorrow is Already Here," "Motoroller Scalatron," "Metronomic Underground"— everything sounds brilliant: every element defined individually, then sculpted into a charismatic, collected whole. And ETK isn't just the A1 Stereolab LP because it found the band forging into new territories, or using the studio with considerable panache, but because its songs are really great.

The title-track rides one killer riff for all its worth; "Cybele's Reverie" is soaked in Sean O'Hagan strings and Parisian romance, and "Percolator" gives jazz a good name. With Sadier and Mary Hansen's vocals turning parrying pirouettes together, Sadier's socio-political texts ("What's society built on?/It's built on, built on bluff") are delivered as extra layers of rhythm; adding complexity and 'groove' to an album that barely needs more of either.

Record Label: Elektra
Release Date: April 1996

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