Back To The Future

The set starts with six songs they recorded for a sculpture exhibition by Charles Long.

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

chronologically,

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

thing.

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

pre-Ketchup syncopation.

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

disconcertingly;

and Mars Audiac Quintet's "New Orthopony" appears in its full-length

incarnation.

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.