On the face of it, Stereolab and Espers seem odd acts to bill together. From Philadelphia, Espers mine the dark, mournful harmonies of British folk using time-burnished instruments like acoustic guitar and cello. The long-running Stereolab on the other hand, incorporates bubbly French pop and hypnotic drones, building airy textures and popcorn rhythms from synthesizers, electrified rock instruments, and brass.
But, things are not always as off as they seem. Both bands also pit hauntingly beautiful female vocals against a density of chaotic sounds, and both emphasize this lovely element in their recordings. And the live experience in both cases is far more complicated and rock-oriented than the respective CDs, bringing rhythmic, elaborately constructed instrumentals to the fore.
Espers’ show is still evolving and expanding, bringing more drums, more electric guitar, and more psych improvisation into its stately mix. You can get a taste of that progression in the band’s cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Flaming Telepaths” on last year’s The Weed Tree, where a melancholy folk groove explodes mid-track, throwing off blinding shards of electric guitar. Although the band doesn’t play this cut on this night, it’s clearly a jumping-off point for their new songs, which often seem like improvised orgies of electrified rock.
Espers, once a threesome, is now up to six members: Meg Baird is perched on a high stool with an acoustic guitar, Brooke Sietinsons next to her with another; Helena Espvall on cello; and songwriter Greg Weeks stands off to the side with an electric guitar. Behind them, bass player Christ Smith faces off with drummer Otto Hauser—the two of them will be locked in a rhythm section communion for the duration of the show.
I arrive midway into the second song—standing in the ticket line, I think I hear The Weed Tree‘s “Tomorrow” from a distance. If I do, that’s the only song they play from that album all night. By the time I get near the stage, they are running through what must be a cut from the new album, Weeks’ careening, feedback-laced notes burning a hole through his cohorts’ acoustic picking. The drums and bass are building an accelerating texture of three-based rhythms. There is really nothing folky about this song—it is full of jazz-like urgency and off-kilter drones, and even the cello’s warmth turns rough and edgy in the mix. It seems to shake the band like rag dolls, Weeks’ long hair flying as he bobs to the quickening beat.
You see the contrast immediately when Espers launches into the next song, drawn from their first, more traditional album. Here delicate, three-part harmonies—Baird, Espvall, and Weeks—rise above minor-key melodies and mallet-beaten cymbal rolls in a sad and lovely song. Both sides of Espers are beautiful, but the band’s louder incarnation is winning out. By the last song, the band is joined by three members of Stereolab—bass player Simon Johns sitting at an extra drumset behind Hauser, Timothy Gane slipping unobtrusively into the back row, and the dark-haired keyboard/guitar player standing somewhere in the middle (he’s blocked so I can’t see what he’s doing).
Then it’s time for Stereolab—or at least time for Stereolab to set up. With multiple synths and keyboards, rock instruments, a trombone, and a French horn, they take a bit of time to arrange things.
The band’s two key members are, of course, singer and multi-instrumentalist Laetitia Sadier and Gane, who met in 1990 and have been pursuing their distinctive mix of Euro-pop, kraut rock, hip-hop, and ye-ye girl vocals ever since. Sadier is the more visible of the two, standing in front in sensible shoes, a calf-length skirt, and a dressy blouse. The only sign that she is a rock star, rather than a mid-level bank executive, is the trombone at her side. Gane hangs back in the second row, unobtrusive to the point of anonymity. When the music starts, he plays with his head down, fingers blurring as he strums the rapid-fire patterns behind Sadier’s airy vocals.
The band opens with the snare-thwacked beat and bird-like vocals of “Come Play in the Milky Night”, from their 1999 album Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, then go directly into the excellent “Eye of the Volcano” from the band’s latest Fab Four Suture. It is a fitting segue and a good opening and it also manages to incorporate songs from nearly every stage of the band’s long career.
Sadier sings gorgeously, her voice as airy and hypnotic as ever, floating effortlessly above a mesh of instrumentation. Her vocals are less prominent than on CD though, and the band’s complex interaction becomes more important. It’s newly apparent, for instance, what great a bass player Simon Johns is, his lines slithery and intense under the rifle-shot drums. You can hear the way that the synths define songs rhythmically and melodically, as ricocheting beats collide with abstract washes of sound. There’s even a big drum solo at the end of “Visionary Road Maps”, explosive, rock-oriented, and utterly un-Euro pop.
All that action is going on all the time, both on the record and on stage, but on record, it’s much easier to be distracted by the prettiness of the singing. The stage show, by contrast, is one big massive party, with everybody moving in the audience, and even Gane unable to stand still—his head bobs from side to side as he slashes out his quick guitar rhythms. When Sadier introduces “Excursions Into ‘Oh, A-Oh’” by saying “It’s time for a little new disco,” she isn’t kidding; by the song’s end, everybody in the room is bouncing on their heels to the burbling beat.
The band dips back into its catalog for “Mountain”, a rock-anchored dance tune, and “Miss Modular”, which has to be started again after the band muffs the first time. But the mistake is tossed off with a laugh and the song is wonderful anyway. Then it’s back to Fab Four-land with “Whisper Pitch” with its dreamy keyboard and French horn opening and lullaby soft vocals. “...Sudden Stars” has the same kind of watery “Strawberry Fields”-ish keyboards, Sadier’s notes blossoming gently in subtle crescendos over an impressionistic landscape. Then, like many of Stereolab’s songs, it turns suddenly rock, drums to the front, guitar riffs accelerating in ever louder patterns. The band hits the remaining highlights from Fab Four Suture as the set closes, then ends the main portion with “Cybele’s Reverie”, a sweet, ye-ye referencing pop highlight from 1996’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup.
After just a tiny bit of coaxing, the band comes back for a mostly instrumental 1960s baroque pop tune: Sadier and Joe Walters trade brass notes at first, then Sadier puts down the trombone to sing wordless, note-falling melodies over a complex instrumental arrangement. After a while, I realize that she and one of the keyboard players are hitting the same line of notes, though she is at about half his speed. The result is a geometrically precise series of intervals that moves rapidly between harmony and dissonance.
The last song is “We’re Not Adult Orientated”, a propulsive dance-oriented triumph from 1993’s The Groop Played ‘Space Age Bachelor Music’. The surprise comes when one hair-ruffling, ear-splitting wave of bass-register feedback erupts, causing most of the front row to cover their ears. Even in this defensive mode, however, most of them are still moving, full of joy, to the beat.