It's hard to keep track of Stereolab. Though their "official" (that is:
major label) releases follow a standard schedule, coming out every
18 months or so, it seems they're constantly in the studio (in the
past three years, they've kept busy selling 7-inch singles on tour,
composing whole suites for art shows and putting together whole albums of
leftovers for their label to send out as press freebies). They're
tireless, and while their major releases are more carefully put together
than some of the songs on their new odds-and-ends collection, Aluminum
Tunes: Switched On Volume 3, Stereolab's castaways are far more
interesting than most other bands'.
Aluminum Tunes, released on Chicago indie Drag City, runs somewhere
around two hours on two discs. That's a lot of Stereolab. Most of the
material comes from sessions recorded during and between Mars Audiac
Quintet, their final heavy-drone work, and Emperor Tomato
Ketchup, the closest they'll ever come to a funk record. Sequenced
it would probably reveal a steady progression into the Ketchup sound.
Instead, it's put together like any other (albeit very long) record,
with several peaks and valleys and no long section of any one particular
As any fan knows, this was a fertile period for the 'Lab, before they'd
started their recent flirtation with easy-listening arrangements and
melodies (apparent on 1998's Dots and Loops). And while it's not as
satisfying as a collection of songs conceived as one record, you don't
need to spend a lot of time digging to find first-rate material.
The set starts with six songs they recorded for a sculpture exhibition
by Charles Long. Firmly in Mars territory, these tracks explore simple,
straight-forward patterns with the occasional swirly embellishment.
They're a nice coda to Mars, actually, and you can hear tiny bits of
Other standouts include "Iron Man," which was sold as a 7-inch with CD2's
"The Incredible He Woman" on the flip during the 'Lab's Dots and Loops
tour. Three alternate versions of album tracks are also worth a listen:
Tortoise's John McEntire's "Percolations" re-imagines the Ketchup track
as a purely rhythmic beast; the Wagon Christ mix of "Metronomic
Underground," also from Ketchup, abstracts the original
and Mars Audiac Quintet's "New Orthopony" appears in its full-length
In their love for analog keyboards and blankly sultry vocals, Stereolab
are so far ahead of their time that they've gone around the bend, past the
beginning, and landed somewhere about 30 years ago. They're like
thousand-year nostalgia. Aluminum Tunes collects the stray bits of
several years' worth of neo-vintage 'Lab -- it won't convert anyone, but
the real heads will get a much-needed fix while waiting for the next release.