Stereolab, Mars Audiac Quintet
A more nuanced portrait of pop's most famous Marxists
For anyone who thought that Stereolab's Space Age Bachelor Pad Music was an ironic exercise in retro futurism, 1994's Mars Audiac Quintet offred a far more nuanced portrait of the band: as Marxists who believed that pop music need not be an opiate of the masses, humanists who weren't afraid of technology, clear-eyed Utopians with a thing for 20th Century kitsch. The opening three-song stretch of "Three-Dee Melodie," "Wow and Flutter" and "Transona Five" offers a clean, potent distillation of the band's songwriting and arrangements, a deliberate motorik pulse underpinning interwoven organ and guitar and vocal counterpoints cycling gracefully above. That style defines the bulk of the album, including the live staple "Nihilist Assault Group," the French-language dance-party jam "L'Enfer Des Formes" and "Ping Pong," whose simple, ascending/descending chord progressions give way to an explosion of horns, flutes and a chorus that will stop you dead in your tracks. The band uses the album's generous length to stretch out and explore slower tempos and more intimate arrangements on songs like "Des Etoiles Electroniques" and "Three Longers Later."
But the sonics and the songwriting are only half the equation: Stereolab reveal themselves to be one of pop's most surprisingly political acts. While the music's repetitive nature lulls you into a sort of groovily receptive state, sweet voices spool off agitprop prose-poems that address war and economics, as though appropriating Walter Benjamin's "Angel of History" in the service of pop music (and putting pop music in the service of revolutionary change). An emphasis on political cycles feeds back into the cycling nature of the music itself, a set of never-ending, ever-growing loops upon loops that recalls both Steve Reich and Medieval polyphony, looking to a better future by harnessing the resources of the distant past.