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?)
On Chemical Chords, the band sound more engaged (and more fanciful) than they have on any release since the death of singer/keyboardist Mary Hansen from a cycling accident in London in 2002 — a staggering blow to the Groop’s internal and external chemistries, and the cause for the only year-long pause in their productivity. Cobbled from a massive reservoir of chord fragments realized by Lab head Tim Gane in private, Chords has all the potential in the world to sound inhumanly generated or coldly manufactured, but ex-Labber and current High Llama Sean O’Hagan’s arrangements for string and brass plus the tender constancy of Laetitia Sadler’s slightly clinical lilt give the album a personal presence unlike anything the band have done in years.
“There were 31 songs,” says Laetitia over the phone of the pile of raw material Gane brought her. “And I’m not a machine, you know? I had to dig very deep.” As we talk, the band’s bus is dead at a mechanic’s in Arizona. It failed the day before, and they’ve had to fly to continue their tour. Eighteen years into their career, Sadler still “loves” the rigmarole of touring, despite the inevitable interpersonal and psychological frictions. She’s a person who seems (even over the phone) to live in the moment, led to the next moment by simple principles that favor joy over worry. A tour itinerary (even the 18th iteration of one) doesn’t blur together; as with her music, there’s enough difference to be uncovered in what could be considered mere repetition.
“This album was a lot of work, yes, but I do have a tool that really helps,” she says, as though about to spill something deeply juicy, “and that’s my dreams. They’re very revealing, they tell the truth. They’re very helpful. Dreams are an infinite bag of ideas and suggestions. They are universal as well — you are tapping into something collective. You can’t go wrong with them.”