What sort of mischief can a smart, painfully self-conscious band from England stir up when it mixes a love of the trance-inducing experimentation of German bands such as Faust and Neu! with a decidedly less hip weakness for everything from Muzak to Farfisa organ to stereo-testing LPs? Actually, a fusion far more mesmerizing than you might expect. Stereolab makes minimalist pop -- "minimalist" in the sense that the music is spare; "pop" in the sense that the hooks are tangible.
Despite the twirling electronic repetition, low-tech special effects and cocktail-jazz swings and shuffles, there is little come-and-go novelty to what Stereolab concocts. The group's timeless, placeless drones, blurps, chants, pops and crackles point at various lounge music and trip-hop sounds, but it's really only dabbling. Stereolab has always marched to the distorted drone of its own crappy equipment. Basic and low-budget may be the reality behind Stereolab, but the overall effect of the group's metronomic beats, soothing, blandly seductive female vocals and single-note repetitions on guitar, synthesizer and ever-present Farfisa is more sophisticated than its canned components let on.
Stereolab's experiments begin with group co-founders Tim Gane and the Paris-born Laetitia Sadier, and the configuration of the group around them often depends on the noises they're tinkering with at the moment. The two met in France when Gane was playing with the genre-bending, left-wing group McCarthy. Sadier, a fan of Joy Division and the Cure, was a big McCarthy follower, and she met Gane after a show in Paris. The pair have been an item -- creatively and romantically -- pretty much ever since. Sadier encouraged Gane to try some of the more out-there ideas he had bouncing around in his head; Gane, in turn, gave Sadier, a frustrated singer, a chance to show off her voice.
At first, the couple formed their own label, Duophonic 45's, with Gane handling the music and Sadier attaching the distinctive lyrical collages of political slogans, thumbnail philosophical asides and gibberish. After their first self-released ten-inch single, "Super 45," Stereolab was signed by the Too Pure label, which began releasing their material in Europe. The turning point in the group's indie evolution came on the The Groop Played Space-Aged Bachelor Pad Music CD, with its pasting together of '50s mood music with ear-tweaking bits from stereophonic test LPs.
Stereolab found its way to major-label Elektra in 1993, and since then has made three CDs and put very little effort into readying itself for a potential meeting with the masses. They've put even less effort into trying to keep a band together. Stereolab's isn't the sort of creativity that promotes the highest level of group interaction. It would seem that Gane and Sadier have enough work chasing after their own ideas, let alone fielding suggestions from others.
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Stereolab's latest CD, the much-praised Empire Tomato Ketchup, is its eighth release in five years, and for the most part it's the most accessible. Even so, accessible in Stereolab terms means that one, maybe two songs could pass conventional radio muster. The rest is just plain weird -- and subliminally habit-forming.
-- Hobart Rowland
Stereolab performs at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, November 6, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Tickets are $10. Ui and DJ Spooky open. For info, call 862-3838.
Libbi Bosworth -- Bosworth's press bio says she went through stints as a punk rocker and a jazz student at the Berklee School of Music, but to set eyes on this Austin honky-tonker -- the embodiment of a crisp fall country morning with a dimpled smile that's nothing short of contagious -- is to dispel any images such a history might suggest. To listen to this songbird is to hear country the way it sounded in the old days. Her debut CD, Outskirts of You, reveals the ease with which she moves from dreamy ballads to lilting roadhouse romps. But it barely touches on the energy she delivers live. Catch the twinkle in her eyes as she contemplates, with just a touch of detached regret, "How to Stop Hurting You" -- "I could change / But I'd have to look inside of myself / And I don't want to." Ouch. At Blanco's Bar and Grill, 3406 West Alabama, at 9 p.m. Thursday, October 31. No cover. 439-0072. (Betsy Froehlich)
Diane Schuur -- Ask jazz lovers their opinion of singer/pianist Dianne Schuur, and you're likely to get some very different answers, ranging from "incredible" to "overrated" to "Diane who?" Though she's won a pair of Grammies and played at the White House twice, Schuur is often overlooked by purists. Their mistake. Schuur is influenced by, and often compared to, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, and while her affection for mainstream pop may have put a dent in her chances of being judged a "legendary diva" by the jazz mafia, anyone who's heard her live knows she can't be excluded from that club forever. As she scats, soars and charms her way through an evening's performances, she may be a little brassy for some tastes, but she's quite good at convincing so-called experts that being "hip" is way overrated. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, at 7:30 and 10 p.m. Saturday, November 2. Tickets are $20, $30 and $35. 869-TICS. (Robin Myrick)