If you only listen to one song today, make it “Lo Boob Oscillator” by Stereolab. (1995, from the collection of rarities Refried Ectoplasm [Switched On Volume 2])
One of my five favorite bands, Stereolab were a very influential alternative band in the 1990s and the 2000s. One of their leads, Lætitia Sadier is very French. She usually sang in French. However, most of the rest of Stereolab were English, and they were based in London. They were an English band.
They were a hard band to describe. They used a lot of vintage analog electronic equipment like mini-Moogs and organs. They were not, though, a “progressive rock” band. They used a lot of tuned percussion instruments like vibraphone and glockenspiel, and they used (synthetic) horns, but they were not a jazz band. They used those bizarre pitch modulation instruments like the theremin, and named two songs (“Jenny Ondioline” and “Marco Martenot” after other bizarre pitch modulation instruments, but they were not a “new age” band. In the sense that they wrote some really brilliant epic anthems (see: Jenny Ondioline), they were sort of an “avant garde experimental jam-band”. At the end of the day, though, they were still just a rock band. They went through phases when they did and did not use a lot of guitars. They never really sounded the same from one record to the next.
They were certainly influenced by jazz, by lounge music. Along those lines, they released an EP in 1993 entitled The Groop Played “Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music”. That’s pretty much an excellent description of their sound. Space age bachelor pad music. The featured song of the day doesn’t come from that EP, but it does come from that era. They released “Lo Boob Oscillator” as a single for Sub Pop Records in 1993. A different version of it appears on a collection of BBC Radio studio performances. Then, in 2005, the original version was re-introduced on the Refried Ectoplasm disc.
For the next few years, Stereolab grew from being the supporting act for bands like Unrest to being the main act in 3,000-seat venues. I liked every record more than the one before it.
I thought they had reached the end, though in 1999. Although it took a lot of patience, a lot of different listening environments and exactly 17 different listenings, I finally “got” Cobra and Phases…. And when I “got” it, I really “got” it.
Again, I thought that they had reached the end in December 2002. Mary Hansen, who was a long-time guitarist and vocalist, and one of the three major parts of the band, was killed in a cycling accident when she was struck by a passing truck. I thought that they would give up at that point.
Instead, they put out a stunning record in Hansen’s honor. Margerine Eclipse (2004) was a major surprise to me. A surprise that they even put out a record at all. And a bigger surprise that they did it with such grace. It was almost like they didn’t miss a beat.
The two records that they released since then were, I thought, below average in terms of Stereolab records. Compared to the average bear, though, they were well above average.
Finally, I’ll come around to what it is I like about this song “Lo Boob Oscillator”.
It’s about the moon. Sort of. I don’t speak French at all, and I don’t understand it nearly as well as I did 20 years ago (which wasn’t very well to begin with), so I never really know what Ms Sadier is singing about. I do know, however, that this isn’t one of their many anti-Capitalist songs.
It starts off innocently enough. One of the poppy songs. It almost has a Motown feel to it. It’s in French, which is always sexy. Like I said, I don’t understand it, but that isn’t the point. 3:40 in, it suddenly shifts gears into one of the “experimental” songs. Off-kilter percussion, guitar feedback, droning keyboards, and no more vocals. It’s almost like it’s two completely different songs in one. My opinion has always been that Stereolab’s best songs are the “two-in-one” songs.
This isn’t my favorite Stereolab song. Not even by a long shot. It was though, a fun one to see live. I used to say that you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Stereolab live. And even then, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen them play a crazily long version of “Lo Boob Oscillator” where they walk off stage, leaving their instruments to feed back for a few minutes. Okay. That and “Jenny Ondioline” Anyone who’s seen “Jenny Ondioline” performed live knows exactly what I’m talking about. I’ve often said that the first time I saw Stereolab, I was gobsmacked. Hundreds of shows and 16 years later, I’ll still say that it was one of the top two best concert experiences I’ve had. Because of “Lo Boob Oscillator”.
The cd of Refried Ectoplasm is out of print, but the vinyl can be bought here, from the Drag City Records page. Digital copies are available at all the usual places.