LIVE: Stereolab @ Roundhouse, London (Pitchfork Festival London)

Seamless and in sync, Stereolab's Roundhouse performance exhibited their art rock influence with characteristic ease.
Posted: 17 November 2021 Words: Caspar Latham Photos: Marilyn Kingwill

“We need so damn many things”, sings Laetitia Sadier, “to keep our dazed lives going”. These characteristically atypical lyrics announced the arrival of Stereolab to the stage of a packed Roundhouse on 14 November 2021 for Pitchfork Festival London, as the irresistibly hypnotic drone of ‘Brakhage’ from their 1997 album Dots and Loops opened their set. 

Co-founded in London by Sadier and guitarist Tim Gane in 1990, Stereolab’s musical career has featured the release of 13 studio albums, 7 compilation albums and 16 singles. Their unique blend of 90’s pop influences with Bossa nova, jazz, hip-hop, brazilica, musique concrète and art rock made the group an influential presence in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Their music has shaped the work of later artists as diverse as Air, Sonic Youth, J Dilla and Tyler the Creator. Their work forms a heterogeneous collection of sound experiments, aptly captured in the name ‘Stereolab’, borrowed from Vanguard Records’ hi-fi effects division in the 1950’s.

Sadier comes across as unpretentious, dressed in unassuming clothes, joking into the microphone and sporting a tambourine. Although often labelled by critics as 'conceptual', 'marxist' and ‘situationist’ on account of their critiques of consumer capitalism, a brief look through Stereolab’s song and album names suffice to show that they do not take themselves seriously: ’How to Play Your Internal Organs Overnight’, ‘Barock Plastic’ and ‘John Cage Bubblegum’ are just a few. In a live context, they project a laidback energy, interacting easily and joking with each other onstage. As well as 'Brakhage' and sultry ballads at the mellow end of the spectrum, their set features more high energy performances. A powerful performance of ‘French Disko’ is rivalled only by a rendition of ‘Lo Boob Oscillator’ which shifts from its opening sing-song vocals to culminate in a wall of pure distortion.

Stereolab have been described as ‘the ultimate record collection rockers’ by music critic Simon Reynolds. Gane himself took to this idea having previously said: “I always liked the idea of achieving certain resonances with the way the records look and sound, right down to the titles of the songs”. It is exactly this element of Stereolab that is difficult to convey live, and even harder in the messy acoustics of the venue, which had been badly managed. Sadier’s distinctively rich, impassive vocals and surreal lyrics, so crystal clear in recordings, were periodically drowned in a wall of muddy sound. Individual instruments, normally intricately woven, became indistinguishable, or inaudible under overloud distorted instruments, badly mixed. Although messy in its execution, the performance proved that Stereolab are still seamless performers, completely in sync, and stronger than ever since their 2009 hiatus. 

To hear more from Stereolab, click here.

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