The newest addition to Stereolab's discography, ABC Music, a two-disc compilation of live-in-the-studio BBC recordings spanning the electro-indie veterans' career, was released in the UK this past October but has yet to find distribution in the United States. It's an unfortunate delay, because the album, while not boasting any new cuts, stands as the closest thing there is to a retrospective of the group's work. And as a retrospective, ABC is ear-opening. Experiencing the band's 14 albums independently, one can easily overlook how much its sound has changed and, yes, improved, over the years. The droney, three-chord charms of 1992's Peng pale in comparison to the textured, intricate sonorities of 2001's Sound-Dust. By condensing Stereolab's career into 32 songs, ABC makes clear just how far the band has come.
But don't expect grand insights into Stereolab's writing process. These are not jam sessions. The songs contained herein were fully conceived by the time they were recorded. They do, however, retain the grit of preproduction -- the album's most enjoyable quality. As a group whose music tends to get a lot of studio polish, Stereolab is not often considered a musician's band. Listening to the blips and beeps of, say, 1997's Dots and Loops, the group sounds more like PC-wielding technicians than humans with instruments. But ABC reminds us that Stereolab's music does not come from the ether but is rather produced by musicians -- damn good ones too. Even such computer-generated songs as 1996's "Les Yper-Sound" get infused with new life. So it's Stereolab Unplugged, as it were -- always a sure test of a band's mettle -- and the group, once again, proves worth its salt.
Finally, ABC Music has the sad distinction of being Mary Hansen's last. The Australian guitarist and vocalist, who had been with the group since 1992, died in a London bike accident in December.
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