Stereolab, Mouse on Mars

Metro, November 12

By Peter Margasak

Often cited as a turning point in the evolution of rock, George Harrison’s mediocre sitar playing on the Beatles’ mid-60s records is also a grand argument for sampling. Back then, if you wanted to incorporate exotic sounds, you had to either fly in some foreign virtuoso, hoping he would comprehend your vision, or tackle the basics of a weird new instrument and then fudge it. Sampling technology has allowed the easy appropriation (and misappropriation) of even the most complicated, nuanced music from around the world; and while it has caused its share of artistic and economic controversy, there’s no denying its role in some of the most interesting popular music of the last decade.

Of course, having the means to sample doesn’t guarantee that one has the vision to use the technology toward a greater end. But performing last week at Metro, both the British pop sextet Stereolab and German electronic style splicers Mouse on Mars demonstrated that they did, blending bits and pieces–the “dots and loops” of the title of Stereolab’s new album–into seamless new music.

Between Stereolab’s first singles, back in 1991, and 1995’s Mars Audiac Quintet, guitarist Tim Gane and lead singer Laetitia Sadier perfected one easily dissected construction, juxtaposing the rigid motorik rhythms of the little-known German group Neu with the gentle melodies of easy-listening music and the hypnotic guitar strumming of the Velvet Underground. Along the way they spiced things up with an array of analog synthesizers, sweet string arrangements (written by onetime member and High Llamas leader Sean O’Hagan), and the beautiful, often nonsensical counterpoints and harmony lines of vocalist Mary Hansen. On last year’s sumptuous Emperor Tomato Ketchup they took a great leap forward, using more varied, flexible rhythms (which drummer Andy Ramsay was able to pull off without sounding proggy) and a vastly wider spectrum of textural color. But even on that record, the band’s MO was fairly conventional: it laid down the skeleton of a song and added overdub after overdub. On Dots and Loops, however, Stereolab tossed its old juxtapositions into a Cuisinart and then reassembled the fragments.

Most of the new album was recorded in Chicago with Tortoise’s John McEntire, who helped the players sample themselves and arrange the results on a computer. While some ideas existed beforehand, for the most part the songs were composed by cutting and pasting on-screen. If the result sounds like any of the band’s influences, it sounds like Burt Bacharach, who couched his ultracatchy melodies in bizarre meters. As with Bacharach, a listener can be satisfied by just the elegant hooks on Dots and Loops, but it pays to pay attention to the tangle of rhythms and textures that lurks below them. Beneath the sashaying, samba-inflected vocals of “Parsec,” for instance, are dizzyingly intricate drum ‘n’ bass-style patterns and dense layers of lockstep keyboard riffing; though they clearly play off the vocals, no one element commandeers the ear at the expense of others.

Of course, the major drawback to the approach Stereolab took with Dots and Loops is that even when the album was in the can, the band still hadn’t played any of the songs through live; in an interview published in the November issue of Request, Gane understandably expressed some anxiety about taking the new material on the road. On the first of two nights in Chicago, only four new songs made it into the 90-minute set, and on those the band couldn’t match the orchestral depth of the recording. The vibraphone passage on “Brakhage,” for instance, was played on electric guitar, and the horn charts from “Miss Modular” were recreated on a Moog. The rest of the set compiled mostly older, more hypnotic numbers, and the new material served to break the trance now and then.

The three songs on Dots and Loops that weren’t assembled in Chicago were done in DŸsseldorf with Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner, aka Mouse on Mars. On their own records, since 1993, St. Werner and Toma have increasingly abstracted the sounds of Can, Neu, and especially Kraftwerk (whose Wolfgang FlŸr played on their second album, Iaora Tahiti, in 1995, then invited them to return the favor); their early work, its big stuttering beats playing off squishy electronic drones and melodic synth squiggles, was a credible amalgam of those antecedents. But on the new Autoditacker (Thrill Jockey), Mouse on Mars makes as clean a break from the past as Stereolab has.

Mouse on Mars’s music is driven by a set of rhythms that’s tangentially connected with dance music–enough so to get them regularly lumped in with “electronica.” But though the duo makes music with computers, and though bits of popular electronic dance-music styles do waft through certain songs, the tag doesn’t hang right. For one thing, electronica is inextricably connected to constantly upgraded technology, practically guaranteeing a cycle of obsolescence. Both Mouse on Mars members willfully use late-80s equipment like E-Max 2 and Akai S100 samplers–both among the first on the market–choosing to place their trust in their own taste and ingenuity rather than their equipment. Plus, on these “archaic” instruments St. Werner and Toma have managed to create an album that’s filled not only with lots of sounds I’ve never heard before but also with real songs, with dynamic structures and hardly a repeated loop.

The album opener, “Sui Shop,” starts off with a relentless 4/4 throb, but the ancillary rhythms constantly change, with a thicket of percussive explosions turning downright funky in the extended breakdown. “Twift Shoeblade” is built on a skittering drum ‘n’ bass scheme, with a melodic line that sounds like it was disinterred from the Human League’s minor hit “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” and a rhythm break akin to the springs in a clock going haywire. And earlier this year, St. Werner and Toma recorded a genuine pop tune, “Cache Coeur Naif,” with vocals by Stereolab’s Sadier and Hansen.

The way Mouse on Mars performed at Metro was a little like the way Stereolab recorded its new album: Fragments of songs from Autoditacker were loaded into a computer, where St. Werner shuffled them further. The beats from “Sui Shop” and the melody from “Twift Shoeblade” were discernible but floated in an otherwise new creation. Toma tooled with various EQ knobs, adding dublike effects and thinning and thickening different patterns. But for all their evident enthusiasm, St. Werner and Toma were still two guys shifting their weight behind a table of blinking lights, and after Stereolab’s relatively organic setup, it was hard to imagine that computers could ever completely replace real instruments. The most we can hope for is that more real musicians will make use of them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Stereolab’s Mary Hansen/ Mouse on Mars photos by Jim Alexander Newberry.