And The Bland Played On
Stereolab Pleasantly Regresses to The Dullest Point in Its Career
Stereolab--a British-French concern devoted to turning out minute variations on the sonic equivalent of an epileptic Olafur Eliasson art installation--is something of an acquired taste. Returning Dots and Loops to me after an overnight listen, a former marathon-stoner acquaintance deemed it "too whiny"; my mother, on the other hand, tripped out over the jerkily structured rhythms of songs like "Contronatura," wondering, "Is this calypso?" Another relative is allergic to the group's charms, dismissing its output as "music for gay men to listen to before having sex." Including "Flourescences" on a mixtape for a Bulgarian exchange-student pal proved to be a mistake; instead of recognizing its inclusion as a nod to the effed-up brother-sister dynamic between us, she just mocked the surging brass.
The quiet Lou Reed wannabe who hipped me to Stereolab's groove-jive in the first place spoke volumes without saying a word: playing a few tracks off of Mars Audiac Quintet, then immediately queuing up some Neu 2!, a smile slowly creasing his features as he watched me draw lineage connections.
Formed in 1990 from the ashes of Essex, England-based political band McCarthy, Stereolab--at the ripe old age of 19--could be said to embody a parodic headline from The Onion's Our Dumb Century book: "Grateful Dead Begins Playing 28-Year Song." Despite intermittent turnover, the group--based around the songwriting nucleus of composer/guitarist/producer Tim Gane and singer/lyricist Laetitia Sadier, which is analogous to Metallica's James Hetfield/Lars Ulrich "unbreakable fist" partnership--have maintained a relatively languorous consistency over the years. No, their sound doesn't remain exactly the same, but it's recognizable enough that there's never much doubt about what you're listening to.
Though certain influences dominate the music more than others at various points in the Stereolab catalog--space-age gloop, easy-listening fare, lounge, shamelessly euphoric Euro-pop, whatever--you can safely anticipate oodles of Moogs, guitars threshed, scouring, or surgical, vibraphones, synths, swelling brass segues courtesy of auxiliary member Sean O'Hagan, and Sadier's Freon-cool post-Marxist rhetoric in English and French.
The significant differences between albums only reveal themselves in retrospect. For instance, 1993's Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements and '94's Quintet marked the band's deep krautrock-fascination phase before '96's Emperor Tomato Ketchup found it going on the avant-pop, kitchen-sink offensive. In 1997, Dots and Loops dismembered Stereolab's sound then reassembled it--letting the seams show--while 1999's horn chart-studded Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night tumbled brightly down a rabbit hole of jazz-fusion, bossa nova, and samba.
Here and there, Gane and Sadier pull a really shocking move--like intermeshing plangent pianos, rattles, bleating horns, and twangy cowboy guitars on "Captain Easychord" (from 2001's too-creamy Sound-Dust)--but more often than not, they've sounded content to perpetually run in place as indie rock's living, thrumming security blanket. Not the worst default setting available, of course, but one that served to limit Stereolab's potential audience to the already converted. A CMJ review of Sound-Dust closed, indifferently, with the sentence "They could do this forever"; indeed, it often seemed, as the previous millennium drew to a close, that only a catastrophe of monumental proportions would be capable of dislodging the group from its self-satisfied cocoon of complacency.
It was a rude shock, then, when disaster arrived in a staggered three-pack: first the Sept. 11 attacks, then the dissolution of Gane and Sadier's romantic relationship, and finally, on Dec. 9, 2002, the fatal loss of longtime Stereolab member Mary Hansen. Following a grieving period, the band re-emerged curiously reinvigorated and melodically virile, shrugging off the sleepy affects it accumulated.
With '04's Margerine Eclipse, an album-length Hansen eulogy, Stereolab delivered its best record in eons: The band thrashed, rocked, and bopped its tears away, channeling sorrow into a zippy euphoria leaner and meaner than anyone had a right to expect. The 2006 compilation Fab Four Suture rounded up a series of subsequent, mold-shattering EPs that flirted heavily with rosy-lensed psychedelia, offering lilting, sliding-scale, brassy bliss and achingly beautiful cable-car drift ("Plastic Mile").
And now the new Chemical Chords (4AD), where the rip-cord zip and beguiling wow of the preceding two discs give way to something paradoxically different: a midtempo suite of relatively short, dripping-with-brass songs that aren't interested in calling much attention to themselves. Chords is the sort of record where you hit play and all of a sudden you're halfway through the thing without even realizing how you got there: The chime-carousel grin of "Neon Beanbag" begets the amiable "Three Women," then "One Finger Symphony" flashes by in a neon blur and you're staring down the title track's sweepingly soothing outlay of horns, strings, and Sadier.
This unobtrusiveness isn't a total surprise given much of the band's 1990s work, but it's a bit disappointing that Stereolab has returned to it so soon, when the band appeared to be on such a roll. "Nous Vous Demandons Pardon" pogos along to nowhere on a handful of phosphorescent electric piano chords. "Fractal Dream of a Thing" ties scraps of keyboard tone, xylophone twack, and vibrating guitar together with silk violins and Sadier's now-patented la la las and bum bum bums. "The Ecstatic Static" pimps that same ol' over-orchestrated bounce step into infinity, and "Valley Hi!" weaves a hypnotic matrix of synths, keyboards, and organs under Sadier's multitracked French, and so on.
When the "Captain Easychord" moments arrive here, they're a shocking relief. On the instrumental two-minute epic "Pop Molecule (Molecular Pop 1)," throbbing guitars and twittering synths bulge and contract like a bodybuilder's muscles, Andy Ramsay's drumming determined to slow the track down to a molasses pace, with gratuitous pitch shifts tossed in to keep the listener off-kilter. The song feels, given the context, like a fortunate, experimental aberration--a sad fact, given that Stereolab was one of indie rock's most adventurous bands at one point.
"Daisy Click Clack" might be Chemical Chords' sweetest, quaintest piece: a grand piano-centered ragtime romp that wouldn't sound out of place in a Broadway musical scene where a little girl discovers the pleasures of dancing. The piano line kicks into a frisky jig, while harps, bing-boing guitars, and myriad other instruments reiterate the melody as something cotton candied and weightless. For these three and a half effervescent minutes, Chords feels truly carefree, and you believe that Sadier's actually enjoying herself and not mentally arranging and rearranging the track list for the next Monade album. Her invitation, when the chorus hits, to "come and join the hymn" feels almost sincere. "Daisy Click Clack" is the sound of Stereolab fully enjoying and outstripping itself; if that feel had been extended to cover the entire album, the band could boast a three-disc winning streak. As is, though, Chords is mostly a backward-looking stumble.
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