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Stereolab - Serene Velocity

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Artist: Stereolab

Album: Serene Velocity

Label: Rhino

Review date: Oct. 9, 2006

Made in 1970, Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity is one of the cornerstones of American structuralist film. Filming an empty corridor over one evening, Gehr uses the symmetrical patterns of the space (patches of light, the formation of an X-shape by lines where the walls meet ceiling and floor) and the continual alteration of the camera’s zoom lens to charge the static space of the corridor with pulsing, perpetually shifting visual energy. These simple filmic gestures transcend notions of apparatus or auteur, so Serene Velocity documents pure visual perception and phenomenon. Indeed, Gehr is quoted in P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film as having stated that film should not be “a vehicle for ideas or portrayals of emotion outside of its own existence as emoted idea. Film is a variable intensity of light, an internal balance of time, a movement within a given space.”

Repetition as pure phenomenon, play with focus and zoom, tricks of the light: it all sounds very Stereolab. With Stereolab’s music, as with structuralist film, form broadly equates to content: they’re in many ways a process outfit, each song as much a formal project as an expressive vehicle. Of course, pure process doesn’t necessarily make for great art, and examples of process-into-populism (i.e. Groundhog Day for film, “O Superman” for music) leaven the dough, as such, with affective properties. Strangely, the lack of overt emotional performativity renders Stereolab quite unexpectedly moving. Their songs use ‘variable intensities of sound’ not so much to reinsert the author into the frame as to open the parameters of process to chance and humanization.

Serene Velocity compiles some of the most significant material from their tenure on Elektra, and it’s heavily weighted on their pop side, which reminds you that beyond the experimentalist mask lies a reconciliatory populist core. From the NEU!-melody of “Jenny Ondioline” through the cosmic jazz pop of “Miss Modular” and “Brakhage,” both from the undervalued Dots and Loops, and on to the cellular Eastern European soundtrack tributes of “Space Moth” and “Double Rocker,” Stereolab play from a most uncommon position: outsiders working from within, inveigling fantastic ideas into pop’s corpus.

By Jon Dale

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