By now, after eight albums and a hard-to-map path of singles and EPs, Stereolab has written their own musical language. It’s one built in part, as critics love to point out, on the 1970s genre of Krautrock, especially the rhythms and grooves of the band Neu! Yet Stereolab’s sound transcends any simple comparisons, drawing from an assortment of genres and elements, including Beach Boys harmonies, bubblegum pop melodies, space-age sound effects, lounge music, Brazilian music, electronica and various strains of jazz. The group takes ideas from a range of musical styles and forms them into the Stereolab sound.
Though they do indeed have an unique, easily recognizable sonic personality, on each album Stereolab adds a new twist to it, casting their sound in a slightly different light. While 1997’s Dots and Loops further integrated electronics and percussion into their sound and 1999’s Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night (and its companion mini-album, 2000’s The First of the Microbe Hunters) saw them crafting a busy, more jazz-based sound, their latest album Sound-Dust has a playful, at times otherworldly style which brings to mind children’s fairy tales.
On the two opening tracks, Stereolab slowly pulls listeners into a fantasyland, casting “sound-dust” over our listening minds. “Black Ants In Sound-Dust” slowly washes over our ears with a dreamy sheen; it fades into “Spacemoth”, where horns, flute and what sounds like a harpsichord combine to create a fairy-tale mood that morphs into a classic Stereolab jaunt. The rest of the album retains (and even crystallizes) Stereolab’s usual knack at well-timed harmonies and unique textures, while wearing a blanket woven from the hazy, imagination-fueled dreams of children. Songs like “Baby Lulu” and “Double Rocker” push the dreamy feeling to its natural extreme, sounding like outright lullabies.
Stereolab’s music has always been more about playing with sounds than conveying messages. Laetitia Sadier’s vocals, which alternate between French and English, generally seem more based on the sounds of vocalizations than on their content. Still, one aspect of Stereolab that often gets overlooked is the way that they do use lyrics to convey ideas while using them for the pleasurable way the words sound. On the whole their lyrics are by no means obvious or straightforward; instead they poetically evoke all sorts of ideas about power structures, human relationships and our place in the universe. Their lyrics are about decisions, questions and mysteries, and call forth difficult ideas in the same relaxed yet experimental manner that the band blends pop tradition with modern-day innovation.
Sound-Dust is one more trip into Stereolab’s joyous creative world, and it isn’t at all redundant or ordinary. While Stereolab definitely has a sound of their own, they also are continually toying with it, throwing new sounds and ideas in the mix. Sound-Dust is no exception in that regard. It’s a fantastic trip into a musical world of wonder, genuinely tapping into the same magical feelings that Disney theme parks commodify and corrupt.