I won’t pretend to have grown up with Stereolab (I was six when they released their debut), but since I discovered them in high school, they have evoked an image of unassailable ’90s cool. From the creepy early cover art to the radical politics; from Laetitia Sadler’s stoic vocals to the Groop’s complete lack of rock and roll posturing, everything about this band was just so mysterious and alien to a kid raised in the cultural badlands of Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.
The band has constructed a repertoire so out of step and so fully realized that a random blurb of any of their songs immediately sounds like Stereolab. When I spin an album, I am beamed up; immediately yukking it up with Jane Jetson at a swanky dinner party, accepting a martini from a whizzing, blinking android butler. I am scooting around beneath a New Las Vegas sunset in my silver air car. Few bands can lay claim to such powerful mental real estate.
Stereolab’s place in pop’s evolutionary chronology is convoluted. They cherry picked then-forgotten styles from ’60s and ’70s, which were in turn made to sound like music from the future. While not necessarily influential in terms of sound, their musical philosophy certainly leaked into indie culture. Along with Beck and DJ Shadow, Stereolab’s retrogressive tendencies kickstarted independent music’s reinterpretation of lost gems and obscure genres. They were one of the first bands to be called “post-rock”. I’d argue “meta-rock” is a more appropriate moniker — they didn’t so much exist “after” rock as beside it. Stereolab drew from the most unhip sources and came up with a sound that oozes distanced, self-assured cool. Stereolab make music for record geeks. How appropriate that they were on the High Fidelity soundtrack.
Overlooking a few detours, the general arc of Stereolab’s career has moved gradually towards pop, and they seem to have reached their final destination on Chemical Chords. Sean O’Hagen’s mellifluous string arrangements are back, and more prominent than ever. Opening tracks “Neon Beanbag” (a prototypical Stereolab song title if ever there was one) and “Three Women” immediately introduce Chemical Chords’ raison d’être with a jaunty melody and silly girl-group vocal instrumentation (think “Da Doo Ron Ron”). Both are represetative of the album’s poppier direction. There are a few short but vital glimmers of experimentation here — the squelching “One Finger Symphony” and the inverted percussion of “Pop Molecule”. Both are strategically placed to shore up the album from a sugary collapse.
When “Valley Hi!” kicks in next, you’ll half expect the baritone croon of Magnetic Fields’ Stephen Merrit to guest star. It’s a perfect little pop tune, as is “Silver Sands”, which sounds like Revolver-era Beatles. “Daisy Click Clack” is an ebullient revision of British wartime dancehall standards, with a guitar riff that overlaps perfectly with Man Man’s “Van Helsing Boombox” (Greg Gillis, if you’re reading, store this one in the ol’ noggin). The title track is a loungey tango that recalls the band’s earlier interest in bachelor pad exotica with Emperor Tomato Ketchup’s proud strings.
I didn’t notice it at first, but one unfortunate result of the band’s dedication to baroque pop on Chemical Chords is a lot of samey 4/4 “notes on the beat” songs. Whether it’s that familiar rubbery reverbed bass or the excessive xylophones, a lot of these songs come off like the Sesame Street theme.
And yet, despite its pop lightness, Chemical Chords doesn’t sound as if it were very fun to make. There’s a workmanlike quality here; we sense that the album’s melodies were painstakingly built from the ground up. All Stereolab albums are like this, to a degree, but because Chemical Chords relies so much on the strength of its melodies, there is little room for impromptu flourishes. Maybe I just miss the late Mary Hansen’s playful harmonies, but these sun-soaked pop tunes could sound happier. This is a focused work that witnesses Stereolab at their most clinical, for better and for worse, but mostly for worse.
While one has to admire the band’s ability to balance progression with a dedication to a few basic ideas, Stereolab’s latter-day albums have begun to sound, well, chemical. All the ingredients are here, but the one that holds everything else up is missing: propulsive krautrock rhythms. It seems dickish to fault Stereolab for attempting to push their sound in different directions — they’ve released over 40 records, all within their cohesive retro-futuristic framework. Why should they have to rehash old ideas? Still, I can’t help but miss their slow burn, “Sister Ray”-like jams, to which the rest of the indie world have only recently caught up (See LCD Soundsystem, Electrelane, Icy Demons, and Deerhunter). Lacking these, Chemical Chords is a cute summer record, one that’s almost as easy to forget as it is to digest.