Stereolab – Chemical Chords

Stereolab
Chemical Chords

To continually reprimand Stereolab for being formulaic and repetitious is perhaps missing the point of the creative relationship between co-founding songwriters Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier. By Gane’s own admission to this writer in an interview a few years ago – for the dear departed Comes With A Smile magazine – the compositional division of labour in Stereolab is “pretty much always the same.” Gane elucidated further; “I just concoct the basic songs and the melody… then I just give them to Laetitia to listen to and then she writes her words to fit the melodies. We start with the rhythms and things tend to be orientated around them. [On] every record I try to make the music a bit more malleable and a bit more able to be stretched, I don’t like things that are too stiff.”

Crucially though, the success of this formula has varied in its effectiveness from record to record. It seems that given shortform outlets, the Stereolab song-matrix really thrives – as 2005’s opulently ostentatious Oscillons From The Anti-Sun singles/EPs boxset testified. With the addition of simpatico external collaborators too, the mathematically-minded constructionist ethos is more energized. Hence why the assistance of ex-Gastr Del Sol maverick Jim O’Rourke, Tortoise’s near-ambidextrous John McEntire and High Llamas chieftain Sean O’Hagan yielded such genre-spinning and melodic magic for sublime Stereolab LPs like 1997’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup and 2001’s overlooked Sound-Dust. Sadly, it also almost goes without saying that Stereolab lost more than just a second vocalist when Mary Hansen died tragically in 2002; with group democracy eroded further in favour of an over-reliance on the core Gane/Sadier partnership for the flavourless Margerine Eclipse in 2004 and the somewhat patchy Fab Four Suture in 2006.

So where does this over-engorged back-story bring us to with the brand new Chemical Chords, an album that Gane promises is packed with 14 “purposefully short, dense, fast pop songs” that supposedly represents “a totally new way” for the Stereolab recording process? Not very far forward it seems, but happily it does take us back to the vicinity of the aforementioned Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Sound-Dust. Which means that Sean O’Hagan is back on board to flesh things out with wider-screen arrangements and that Gane has noticeably beefed-up the band’s rhythmic back-bone.

Thus, we’re blessed with some beaming string ‘n’ brass-soaked post-easy listening on the “Miss Modular”-like “Three Women” and the swooping “Self Portrait With “Electric Brain””. Elsewhere, the heavily-percussive “Silver Sands” and the harpsichord-powered “Nous Vous Demandons Pardon” deliver dreamy ‘60s pop-exotica shades. Better still, is the grinding Krautrock of “One Finger Symphony” and the gloriously murky “Pop Molecule (Molecular Pop 1)”, which both revisit the dirty layered-grooves of the classic “French Disko”.

Despite the tangible sonic reinvigoration, Chemical Chords ultimately strains to reach into the upper-echelons of the Stereolab canon due to Sadier’s persistent slide into passivity. Her vocals rarely lead the way emphatically and her slim provision of smart lyrical hooks conflicts with the collection’s more direct pop philosophy, leaving some tracks adrift in a sea of clever yet soupy studio embellishments.

On some levels, it feels a little pointless critiquing Stereolab at this stage in the band’s career. It’s almost like knocking Bob Dylan for singing through his nose or complaining that there hasn’t been a half-decent Stones album since 1978’s Some Girls. It won’t really alter Stereolab’s appeal or importance to loyal followers, who will ultimately be satisfied with whatever Gane and Sadier commit to vinyl, polycarbonate or hard drive. However, in the context of such a vast discography, Chemical Chords does stand up for itself as a solid, if unexceptional, latter-day Stereolab long-player.