By Jemiah Jefferson
“Listen to this,” my friend Ben said to me on a happily semi-spontaneous trip to my fortress of solitude in San Francisco. “This is the most static music I’ve ever heard.”
Ben had spent the entire evening turning me onto bands that I would go on to love—Soul Coughing among them, but that’s another story—and I was starved for new sounds to get into, having listened to a steady diet of Brian Eno for some years.
It was a dark and grim time in my life, when I found the city of my hopes and aspirations to be merely a vast wasteland of things I couldn’t afford and people I couldn’t be. There was a lot of banked, formless anger I couldn’t voice, and a lot of beauty all around me that I observed which nobody else seemed to notice.
So Ben played me track five from his favorite Stereolab album, Mars Audiac Quintet, and I was at first charmed, then deeply confused, then taken away on a nearly psychedelic journey. The last thing I had expected from the cheerful jangling guitars, tambourine, and humming Hammond organs was an excursion into the possibilities of drone, much less a dryly sung lesson in the living evolution of economic systems, ending with a refrain of “Don’t worry, be happy; things will get better naturally” that I took, for several years afterward, to be sarcastic. Later, I learned that sarcasm is one of the many tools Stereolab has on their worktable, but that lyric wasn’t using it.
I think it took me a week to get to the record store and drop hard-earned cash on this marvel, and for the whole week, the jaunty bounce of “Ping-Pong” was on my mind night and day. Once listened, it could not be unheard. I needed more. What did the rest of their stuff sound like? I had to know. I had been hypnotized with a Hammond.
Wonders awaited. “Ping Pong” will be a top-ten favorite song of mine for the rest of my life, though I started having extremely tender feelings for “Transona Five,” and the feelings only deepened when Canadian songmasters Sloan showed me (in one of the most clever live cover medleys of all time) that the song’s melody and rhythm is a direct swipe of Canned Heat’s “On The Road Again.” I was thrilled at their audacity; that sort of thing was new to me then.
The other songs are all brilliant; I thought “Wow and Flutter” was cheery and comforting until I realized that the lyric is about how everything, including people, governmental systems, even nations, are living things that will someday die (but even that isn’t delivered sarcastically; it can be a source of cold, grim relief). Other songs like “Anamorphose” and “The Stars Our Destination” are just as static, but concentrate more on the obsession with organic drone; it’s a groove, but it’s much more mechanical than jam-band. But not Kraftwerk or industrial levels of mechanism! So much of Mars Audiac Quintet is explicitly lounge music, all expansive spaces and dreamy feminine vocals, talking about outer space, cooing mysterious lessons about life, love, and the power of collective workers in French.
This album gave me the strength and the joy to get my shit together and get back to the town where I will always call home, and make some more money, because Stereolab has a ton of material and I wanted to hear as much of it as I could. And while I came to love Dots and Loops and Cobra and Phases even more, it was probably only because I listened to Mars Audiac Quintet non-stop for years and needed newly translated sounds to explore.
Stereolab has indirectly exposed me to more music that I absolutely love than any other band, and I owe it all to the fact that “Ping-Pong” made me wonder if I was having an acid flashback. That’s my kinda music!