Groop therapy

Stereolab do it again for the first time
By MICHAEL BRODEUR  |  October 1, 2008

SAME DIFFERENCE: Stereolab have moved through a series of inconspicuously varied states, each phase deepening in color with every overlap.

I can say without fear of clogging next week’s Letters section that Chemical Chords (the new Stereolab album, and their first on 4AD) is right up there in the top three Stereolab albums evah. Which I guess means it comes in third. Right behind Peng! and Emperor Tomato Ketchup, of course.

How? How can I say that with such flip assurance? Well, for one, what’s the last time you heard anybody engage in a heated defense of one Stereolab album over another? If anything, the longstanding likability of this band (they’ve been subject to only a few bouts of turbulence over dozens of releases, nine of them full-lengths) has gradually turned into their biggest liability. Even devoted fans (perhaps “committed” is better) of the Groop might have trouble listing 10 favorite tracks — a condition complicated in no small part by titles like “Puncture in the Radax Permutation” and “Lo Boob Oscillator,” but certainly having more to do with a perceived sameness that seems to pave the band’s œuvre. (Besides, any reader’s attempt to submit a personal ranking of the Lab’s discography would be way over word count by the second or third entry.)

DOWNLOAD: Stereolab, "Three Women" (from Chemical Chords) [mp3] 

You’ll often, in reviews, see Stereolab treated with the same encouraging shrug one might offer a reliable furnace after it switches on each year. Dominique Leone’s Pitchfork review of 2004’s Margerine Eclipse almost collapses under the weight of its own respectful indifference, a 960-word room-temperature ehhhh. Chris Jones’s recent review of Chemical Chords for the BBC asks, “How much room can you make in your life for another of their albums, when the results are nearly always the same, no matter how clever?” Despite the band’s sustained multi-lingual adherence to socio-philosophical tenets that urge individual resistance to the myriad exploitations of modern capitalism, they can come off as mass-produced. That Snickers bar you had at lunch is not the Snickers bar of 20 years ago, but as satisfying as it is, it might as well be. That sort of thing.

Such passive judgment might seem an unfair fate for such an active force, but it’s the side effect of being slow to grow and quick to harvest. From the booming, grinding drones, squelching filters, and howling oscillations of Peng! to the new pop frontiers insisted upon by every song on Emperor Tomato Ketchup to the crystalline spaceport soundscapes of Dots and Loops (hmm, wait a sec, maybe Chemical Chords comes in a close fourth) to the uncharacteristically efficient fun-size Baroque Motown baubles so abundant on their latest, Stereolab have moved through a progressive (if gradual) series of inconspicuously varied states, each phase deepening in color with every overlap. (Could there be a Stereolab title hiding in there somewhere?)

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