Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier might be her own worst critic. “I had issues with (the band’s latest release, Chemical Chords’) production, with how it was mixed, how there’s very little air and ba-donk, ba-donk, ba-donk all the way through practically,” she told the Village Voice a few weeks back. “But live? It’s a beautiful work.” While I might not agree with her assessment of Chemical Chords — it’s probably Stereolab’s best record this decade — I’d have to agree that in concert the songs really came alive, providing proof that the band remains one of the most reliable live acts around.
Sadier was pulling double-duty this evening, with her side project Monade in the opening act slot. Because she’s got that distinctively smoky, French-accented voice, any band that features her lead vocals is going to sound at least to some extent like Stereolab. And Monade’s music, with its mixture of krautrock locomotion and tricky time signatures isn’t radically different from what the ‘Lab has been doing for the past 15 years. But the slightly less cluttered arrangements — there’s definitely more “air” in this band — and bouncy basslines supplied by the pixie-ish Marie Merlet kept Monade’s set from being redundant.
On the contrary, it was a perfect complementary appetizer before the entrée. After a quick wardrobe change, Sadier was back onstage, this time with her Stereolab co-conspirator Tim Gane and company. Almost instantly, one was reminded of something that doesn’t always come across on the band’s records: Stereolab is kind of a dance band. No matter how many reviews describe them as “chilly” or “detached” the band’s music has always been rooted in propulsive rhythm — hey, let’s go a step further and call it “funky.”
When Stereolab kicked off the new record’s buoyant “Three Women”, it sounded unmistakably like a vintage Motown track, even without the soulful horn stabs that are featured on the studio version. At the Gothic, drummer Andy Ramsay was the engine of the whole set, with his crisp, locked-in beats keeping the music bright and the audience moving. “We have a lot of dancers in the crowd!” Sadier remarked at one point, sounding slightly surprised. She shouldn’t have been, since she could barely stop dancing herself. Sadier’s a great performer — whether shaking a tambourine, hitting every note perfectly, or plunking on her keyboard, she effortlessly commanded the stage, providing a focal point for an otherwise not super-exciting band in visual terms.
Tim Gane, on the other hand, spent the night tucked away in the corner, strumming his guitar, expressionless and motionless for the most part. Gane may be the primary creative force (musically, at least) of Stereolab, but he doesn’t seem remotely interested in the spotlight that could be rightfully his. Occasionally he’d toss his head from side to side during a musical climax, but otherwise, he was barely noticeable. One of those musical climaxes came early on in the set, during “Lo Boob Oscillator”, as the band shifted gears from a laconic Velvet-y strum to a full-on “Hallo Gallo” workout, paying fitting tribute to the recently departed Neu!/Kraftwerk drummer Klaus Dinger, one of Stereolab’s formative influences.
A lot of bands have borrowed Dinger’s pioneering motorik beat over the years, but Stereolab remains one of the best if not the best of the borrowers. The band seems to understand that it’s not just about robotic tightness – it’s about pulse, about the heartbeat. It’s a human rhythm, in other words. As Ramsay and bassist Simon Johns locked into the hypnotic groove, the keyboards and guitars swirled around the room magnificently, the song stretching out past the ten-minute mark.
Throughout the show, Stereolab made the creation of such an amazing sound look exceedingly easy. All in a day’s work, I suppose. The night concluded with another epic psych-jam, this time on the song “Stomach Worm”, plucked from the band’s first album Peng!. Stereolab has come a long way since those early days – musically and personally – but as their wall of buzzing sound rose and fell, one could only feel thankful that such a wonderful and unique band has pressed on through the years. Vive le Stereolab!