Aluminum Tunes

(Drag City)

By Eric Levy

This won’t endear me to the Goldmine set, but around 1988 or ’89, when it became apparent that compact discs were here to stay, I hoped the next thing I’d hear in pure digital sound would be the death knell of the pop single. Estimates of just how much music could actually fit on a CD ranged from 59 to 74 minutes, depending on whom you asked; whatever the actual capacity was (ten years later my longest CD clocks in at 80:01), the shiny silver five-inch discs lifted most of the time constraints imposed by those unwieldy slabs of vinyl. All the music that had previously been relegated to the B sides of singles could now fit comfortably on the original albums, saving the average consumer the extra money and effort previously required to get the complete picture of an artist’s work.

But singles haven’t vanished–they’ve flourished, though they’ve changed dramatically since the days when a new 45 cost less than a dollar. They’re no longer a way to get the most hits into the most hands, or even just a medium for obscure bands that have only one or two songs to give. In the digital age they’ve become a way for artists and labels to create a sometimes artificial demand for their music, teasing fans with nonalbum tracks that are often available only in limited quantities or geographical areas. Way back when, if Elvis Costello released a 58-minute LP and a few leftover tunes ended up on the back of a 12-inch single or two, it was with good reason: a vinyl LP can generally contain up to 48 minutes of music before the sound quality begins to decrease noticeably. In 1993, the same version of R.E.M.’s hit “Everybody Hurts” preceded a total of six different nonalbum tracks on two different CD singles, even though all of the additional tracks could’ve fit on Automatic for the People with about seven minutes to spare.

When the nonalbum tracks start to pile up, they get rereleased on whole new albums or as the last enticement to buy a pricey box set. Nirvana fans who hadn’t tracked down every last pre-Nevermind single were treated to Incesticide in 1992. You’ll have to shell out for Roxy Music’s 1995 four-disc import box set The Thrill of It All to get that band’s B sides, collected on disc four. And if you’ve missed any of the singles by Swedish popsters the Cardigans, look for the 1997 Japanese all-rarities compilation The Other Side of the Moon.

The London-based pop band Stereolab has just released its third collection of singles and rarities, Aluminum Tunes. Since guitarist Tim Gane and singer Laetitia Sadier got together in 1991, in addition to five full-length albums Stereolab has released 11 CD EPs and more than 20 singles (many of them vinyl seven-inches sold only at concerts) and has contributed tracks to numerous various-artist collections, including England’s outstanding magazine-CD series “Volume” and the Brazilian-music benefit compilation Red Hot + Rio. In fact, its very first release on CD was 1992’s Switched On Stereolab, which compiles the group’s first three releases: Super 45, a ten-inch EP, and Stunning Debut Album, a seven-inch single, which were available only by mail order from the band’s own label, Duophonic, and the ten-inch Super-Electric EP, issued by the British label Too Pure. In 1995 Chicago’s Drag City released Refried Ectoplasm (Switched On Volume 2) which collects 13 songs from singles and EPs that appeared between Switched On and Stereolab’s fourth proper LP, Emperor Tomato Ketchup.

Aluminum Tunes continues the “Switched On” tradition (though not the subtitle) with nearly two hours of rare and, in a few cases, unreleased material that stretches over two CDs (or three LPs, for the analog diehards out there). The two full-length major-label albums Stereolab has released in the last three years, Emperor Tomato Ketchup and last year’s Dots and Loops, suggest a leisurely approach to recording, but when you take into account all the EPs, singles, and compilation appearances it’s made in that time, a level of productivity emerges that could rival Frank Zappa’s. Gathering nearly all of these, Aluminum Tunes may be the band’s best release to date.

Most exciting is the inclusion of Music for the Amorphous Body Study Center, which makes up the first 23 minutes of the collection. The original release, a CD EP of six songs that were included in a 1995 multimedia exhibition by artist Charles Long, was available only at the New York gallery; it was reissued later but is extremely hard to find, at least stateside. This collector’s item is also a musical milestone for Stereolab–it marks the end of what, in retrospect, can be seen as the early period. The band’s signature repetitious organ and guitar drones are complemented by the string arrangements of High Llamas mastermind and frequent Stereolab collaborator Sean O’Hagan, which have since become a staple, and the EP marks a real leap forward for vocalist Mary Hansen, who’d previously hung back further in the mix. Here the la-la-las and dum-de-dums of Hansen and Sadier effortlessly intertwine for a stunning effect only hinted at on earlier releases.

The remaining three fourths of Aluminum Tunes (most of which originated as vinyl tunes) don’t consistently reach the same heights, but there are many more peaks than valleys. With the exception of two dreadful remixes–by John McEntire and Luke Vibert–of perfectly good songs, everything else ranges from the merely interesting (“The Long Hair of Death,” from a split seven-inch sold on a tour with Yo La Tengo in 1995; “Cadriopo,” from Laminations, a 1996 promotional-only CD EP) to the extraordinary (a previously unreleased expanded version of “New Orthophony,” originally from 1995’s Mars Audiac Quintet; “Iron Man,” from a seven-inch sold on the Dots and Loops tour).

When an interviewer from Magnet asked Gane about the abundance of limited-edition releases in November 1997, he replied, “We don’t throw songs away. Everything comes out eventually.” I hope he meant on CD. Refried Ectoplasm did not include every rarity that preceded it (though a few of those songs are now on Aluminum Tunes), and as thorough as Aluminum Tunes is, it isn’t exhaustive either. So if you’re a completist who can’t wait another minute to own the demo version of “Ronco Symphony,” released on a split single with Submariner by the Space Watch label in 1992; or “I’m Going Out of My Way,” from a 1994 Radiopaque seven-inch with Scrawl; or the live-to-radio version of “Pop Quiz,” included on a free cassette that came with Melody Maker on August 28, 1995; or the band’s second collaboration with surrealist industrialists Nurse With Wound, genuine aluminum tunes that came wrapped in foil, check out for a complete discography and suggested hunting grounds. Me, I’ll wait for “Switched On Volume 4.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Stereolab photo by Perou; album cover.