Stereolab - Pulse of the Early Brain (Switched On, Vol. 5) Music Album Reviews

Stereolab - Pulse of the Early Brain (Switched On, Vol. 5) Music Album Reviews
The avant-pop group offers a comprehensive if inessential career overview on what may be the final edition of its long-running compilation series.

When Stereolab announced the release of Pulse of the Early Brain, the fifth installment in the avant-pop ensemble’s Switched On compilations gathering up material not found on their proper LPs, they noted that it was “possibly the final edition.” The use of “possibly” does leave the door open to the band finding more rarities tucked away on a forgotten hard drive or making new music together, but it’s hard not to see this collection as the band’s concluding statement. Pulse of the Early Brain collects every remaining leftover from Stereolab’s substantial discography—rare EPs, singles, and stray comp tracks—that had yet to be included on any previous Switched Ons or as bonus tracks on their recent run of album reissues. Thirty years after the release of the first Switched On comp, their known archives appear to be empty.

The breadth of the material included on Vol. 5 also has the unintended effect of serving as a far-ranging career overview for Stereolab. Though it isn’t sequenced in chronological order, Pulse hits on every stage of Stereolab’s sonic evolution. The earliest tracks date from 1992, the year that founding members Lætitia Sadier and Tim Gane were joined by their longest-standing collaborators, vocalist Mary Hansen and drummer Andy Ramsay. The most recent tunes were released in 2008, right before the group announced their hiatus. Even though the 3xLP/2xCD set jumps backward and forward in Stereolab’s timeline, the result is a fairly comprehensive portrait of their development from their initial motorik nihilist assault to the pop molecules of their later work.

Representing the heady roar of the group’s earliest recordings are the four tracks from Low Fi, an EP originally released in 1992 via Too Pure. In each one, Sadier and Hansen coat their sugar-sweet harmonies with layers of chugging guitar and overdriven Farfisa and Moog. The material from the mid-to-late ’90s continues the dense, melodic height of albums like Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, as Stereolab worked to get as far afield from their usual sound as possible with more elaborate arrangements and danceable rhythms. “Robot Riot,” a previously unreleased track written for a Charles Long art exhibition, has a jangly momentum, while “Symbolic Logic of Now!,” originally found on a 1998 split 7” with one-and-done post-rock group Soi-Disant, explodes the concepts of Dots and Loops into dizzying dub exotica.

Also included is a quartet of songs that came from the prolific recording sessions that produced Stereolab’s final full-lengths, 2008’s Chemical Chords and 2010’s Not Music. And like those two albums, the striding funk groove of “Spool of Collusion” and the tickling fizz of “The Nth Degrees” expands the group’s pop palette with more luminous synth tones and a digital patina.

The downside to this final sweeping up of stray tracks is that, for the first time in this series, Pulse of the Early Brain is bogged down with a good deal of inessential material. One of the likely attractions for longtime fans is the inclusion of 1997’s Simple Headphone Mind, the long out-of-print second collaboration between the group and Nurse With Wound, the long-standing experimental project led by Steven Stapleton. The two tracks are pleasant enough, with Gane’s chiming guitar clashing nicely with the more proggy tones of NWW member David Kenny over an insistent drum machine pulse. But with the absence of Sadier and Hansen’s voices or Stapleton’s noisier antics—both of which feature prominently on the artists’ previous meet-up, 1993’s Crumb Duck—the songs feel skeletal and unfinished.

The same can be said for the various short tracks scattered throughout Pulse of the Early Brain, like a demo version of “Ronco Symphony” from 1993’s The Groop Played “Space Age Batchelor Pad Music” and a pair of minor tunes previously found on short-run flexi discs. Their inclusion is necessary, in order to make the series feel comprehensive, but they don’t add much substance to the overall story of the band—a tale may be coming to an end soon. Though tour dates are scheduled through December, there has been no indication from anyone involved with Stereolab that they will continue beyond that. But if that “possibly” mentioned above presages future music from the group, Pulse of the Early Brain has emptied out the closet and left them free to pack it full with new ideas once more.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Stereolab - Pulse of the Early Brain (Switched On, Vol. 5) Music Album Reviews Stereolab - Pulse of the Early Brain (Switched On, Vol. 5) Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Saturday, September 10, 2022 Rating: 5

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