Friday, November 16, 2012

Stereolab: A Gateway to Vinyl Obsession

Welcome to VRB

I'd like to first welcome you to Vinyl Record Blog ("VRB"), what I hope to be an entertaining and informative destination for fellow vinyl enthusiasts and collectors alike. If you are like me, your obsessions are a conduit for new avenues of exploration and learning. Music itself is limitless in its ability to constantly reveal new tangents and tastes, and I've found vinyl to be the most satisfying transmission and curation of this universal artform. I'm constantly discovering new things about this old format, and I think this is a great way to share and invite discussion. From time to time I'll also be posting links to pieces in my collection I'm interested in selling. Feel free to inquire about anything. Thanks for reading.


I can trace the tipping point of my obsession with vinyl to one friend, one meal and one song. One weekend a few years ago I was back in my college town of Athens, Ga., a city whose center is roughly 20 square blocks containing an astounding 80 different bars, a city of late nights. I was there visiting a friend of mine named Patrick. As friends, we share many interests, and both being musicians, music is easily the most significant. Patrick had amassed a small selection of LPs from various genres and bands, including Stereolab – a group we both admired. He decided to throw on one of their records to start the day while he spun us up some breakfast to cure any sign of hangover. The album was Margerine Eclipse, and the opening song, "Vonal Declosion," had never sounded so alive, just as it looked, turning, there in the corner of the room. The music was intrinsically more kinetic, and the mere fact of having to flip the record added a new layer of intention and attention to listening. Maybe it was the remnants of many India Pale Ales or the mind-opening morning toke, but suddenly, this music that was familiar to me sounded somehow different, better. Either way, I was hooked.

Stereolab - Margerine Eclipse
Margerine Eclipse (Duophonic UHF-D29, 2004)

I owned a few Stereolab titles on compact disc and in digital format, but soon Margerine Eclipse became the first thing I'd ever bought on LP. With a long history of interesting physical releases, the band has always exuded qualities that make them a perfect catalyst for getting into vinyl: complex music, unusual and exciting art direction, and a consistent emphasis on limited releases.

"They Just Sound Better on Vinyl"

It's what record collectors always say about listening to music on vinyl, and I agree – in some instances more than others. Stereolab's music is textural and layered and benefits from the separation heard in analog playback. Much of their sound incorporates low-fi elements, too, and the presence of any surface noise seems to compliment that character. Admittedly, this first point is subjective (most observations are), and the idea that any group is more enjoyable in or suited to a particular format is just something you have to experience yourself. It's all the more appealing in Stereolab's case when you see their albums.

Rock Art

The art direction of Stereolab's releases expresses an evolving visual language that is always eclectic and analogous to their music. The designs are never the typical, run of the mill treatments – far from it. Colored vinyl, screen printing, halftone imagery, vibrant hues and futuristic minimalism are all elements that are visually exciting and unusual. That's Stereolab.

So shut up already and show us something!

Ok! Here are a few things I pulled from my collection.

The labels from Margerine Eclipse

While things may seem kind of random, there always appears to be intention behind the direction of Stereolab's album art. The restrained use of color found in Margerine Eclipse places more emphasis on texture and form. There's always a high level of interest in the typography, and it is treated very intentionally. Each release has its own distinct visual personality. 

Emperor Tomato Ketchup, employs very crisp aesthetic matching its mid-90s release date. The limited edition original pressing even features clear yellow vinyl infused with gold glitter. A look well-suited to its off the wall title.

Emperor Tomato Ketchup (Duophonic UHF-D11, 1996)

Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Gold Glitter Vinyl

Possibly my favorite Stereolab album art, 1997's Dots and Loops sports one of the simplest designs in a clean, futuristic contrast between greens of different color temperatures along with the music delivered in bold, solid colored pressings.

Dots and Loops (Duophonic UHF-D17, 1997), Front and Back

Dots and Loops, Vinyl

The 2008 Stereolab album, Chemical Chords, continues the tradition of bold colors, this time set against a black background that makes the neons really pop. The cover is particularly interesting, allowing different interpretations of what's actually being pictured. Is it a women's figure? Just a glittery blob? Whatever you see, it's bursting with energy.

Chemical Chords (4AD CAD2815, 2008)

The inventiveness connecting the sound and look of Stereolab is obvious. The visual language evolves throughout the catalog just as the music does, and for a band that explores so much sonic territory, it only makes sense. It also makes owning their albums that much more compelling. What's even more compelling is the number of limited releases the band issues purely on vinyl.

Power in Numbers

Some bands have carried the torch in the argument for vinyl, offering limited editions of otherwise unobtainable music. Stereolab has long been issuing short-run 7-inch 45s, 10-inch EPs and "tour singles." Many of their LPs were initially released as special, limited pressings. As always, the art holds true to the illustrative Stereolab brand. Such a small populations of these little treasures only creates more demand for them.

Tour Singles: The Underground is Coming (1999), Rose, My Rocket Brain! (2004), Solar Throw-away (2006)

For the Record

There exists a handful of musical acts that somehow just seem more suited for vinyl, and few have created such a unique universe of form, color and sound as Stereolab. (Hell, they're even named after a test record, borrowing from those album covers in their album art.) Their music is, at once, singular and diverse with an elaborate sonic signature, so much of which translates into very creative visual representations. Stereolab simply never bores me, and if you haven't heard much of them, I recommend checking them out. Even their more obscure songs and releases are worth finding, if you can. So much of my record collection owes its existence to hearing Margerine Eclipse that day and the thrill of "the hunt" that helped inspire. If there was ever a reason to buy more vinyl, Stereolab is it.

1 comment:

  1. I've recently fallen back in love with my record player and as a huge Stereolab fan I concur with everything you've written. The split Stereolab / Yo La Tengo 7" I got at one of their earlier gigs will always be treasured and played often.