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Stereolab: Peng! (1992)

July 28, 2011

stereolab pengRoll: 5-10-15
Album: Stereolab, Peng!

The first proper Stereolab album, the last pre-Mary Hansen recordings, and their fourth-to-last good album before they fell down the bossa-nova rabbit-hole, Peng! blended German motorik, French pop, and British mod-psych to create the perfect CD for pulling all-nighters at art school in the 1990s. Though if you put in that much effort at art school, you weren’t really at art school.

Or, at least, you weren’t me. For reading Sandman comics, playing Sega and general slacking, Stereolab was the soundtrack for a lot of us.

If The Kinks showed the world you rarely need more than three chords and The Velvet Underground said you didn’t need more than two, Stereolab proved one chord is enough.

Not that there aren’t a few extra chords thrown around Peng!, but this was still when Stereolab weren’t afraid of the drone and were okay with keeping things simple. It’s a less-is-more approach they lost later on when they began adding, literally, too many bells and whistles.

Starting with Dots and Loops [1997] they too-fully embraced the retro lounge music they’d helped to popularize with their EP Space Age Bachelor Pad Music [1993]. I remember going in to a record store called Fascinating Rhythm the week it was released and my friend Andrew looking utterly befuddled behind the counter saying, “It makes no sense. They put out consistently great indie-rock records for ten years then they start making easy listening?”

I wasn’t as confused. Lounge was ultra-hip in ’97 and a lot of us irony-hungry small town hipsters were trying to convince ourselves we actually liked it. Outside of a few genuinely far-out Esquivel tracks I’m not sure any of us really did. I did a pretty good job convincing myself I liked swing music and Sinatra too. 1997 was a weird time for me. I was finishing up a pointless degree, had just escaped an attempt on my life, and was mired in the birth pains of a fledgling toxic relationship which would end up causing me to question myself constantly for almost ten years. I was making questionable choices in an attempt to be someone I wasn’t.

Someone who’d defend Dots and Loops passionately in a record store even though Andrew was completely right. It was terrible.

Peng! on the other hand remains brilliant. More obviously influenced by Velvet Underground and Neu! (or even relative contemporaries Spacemen 3) than Esquivel and Serge Gainsbourg, here Stereolab’s trademark lounge elements are mere subtle textures to their deceptively delicate guitar and drums chuggernaut. Fuzzy Farfisa organs, repetitive bass lines and droning psychedelic garage-punk guitars motor along relentlessly at a steady pace, while Lætitia Sadier‘s emotionally muted voice croons over top. The result is hypnotic and dreamy, yet remains invigorating, adventurous art-rock without blurring into a shoegaze haze—though it does come close at times.

More fully realized than their early singles (compiled on Switched On [1992]) this is their first of four consecutive masterpieces (ending with Emperor Tomato Ketchup [1996]) and one of the best records 1990s alt/indie rock has to offer future generations.

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