On “Jenny Ondioline,” Stereolab pointed the way to a retro future

On “Jenny Ondioline,” Stereolab pointed the way to a retro future

In Hear ThisA.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: songs from 1993.

A decade before the ’00s decree that every band had to have a synthesizer, no matter whether it knew how to use it, Stereolab stood out in an indie-rock scene already crowded with sloppily dressed dudes strumming their guitars by bringing a Moog-driven sound and ultra-mod sensibility. The English band—fronted by the chilly, très-French coos of Lætitia Sadier—took that mod fetishism further and further as the years wore on, eventually slipping into an approximation of easy-listening lounge-pop (right around the height of the ’90s swing revival) that finally made good on the title of 1993’s Space Age Batchelor Pad Music EP. But on that same year’s major-label debut Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, it straddled more equally the divide between the retro-kitsch and Krautrock drones that were the two key components of the band’s sound. And that sound was most indelibly captured on “Jenny Ondioline.”

Named after an early electronic keyboard invented by Georges Jenny, the nearly 19-minute “Jenny Ondioline”—which sprawled across an entire album side—contains an equivalent multitude of tones in its deceptively simplistic frame. Starting off as a Velvet Underground-indebted, two-chord churn, the song fades out around minute seven in a storm of noisy guitar, only to return more forceful than ever, repeat the cycle by dropping out again in minute 14, then explode again in a haze of feedback that finally dissipates into a more coolly sustained version of its beginning. Meanwhile, Sadler trades off in ping-pong harmony with deceased backing vocalist Mary Hansen on lyrics that declare, “Life on Earth is a bloody hazard, it’s a fact” and “I don't care if the fascists have to win / I don’t care democracy’s being fucked / I don’t care socialism’s full of sin.” These would most closely resemble the Marxist-influenced ranting of some angry agit-punk band, were they not tempered by Sadler and Hansen’s cool lilt, and a refrain that repeats, “We’ve got to keep the lift, hope, and struggle” over music that grows ever stronger and more urgent.

That Stereolab could encompass all of these elements—retro-futurism, political sloganeering, making really pretty pop music—in one package only made the band more difficult to categorize, even in a year when the categories were constantly expanding. Most critics settled on “post-rock,” a catchall that came to be as meaninglessly applied as “indie rock” in just a few short years. But as useless as that definition quickly was, in 1993 there was a certain sense that music was moving beyond, to a sound shaped by new and old technology, savvier scavenging, and endless possibility. And in the primitive yet advanced, past-indebted yet forward-looking “Jenny Ondioline,” that future was audible.

Stereolab - Jenny Ondioline from Erythromycine on Vimeo.