Stereolab: Chemical Chords

Chemical Chords is a cute summer record, one that’s almost as easy to forget as it is to digest.


Chemical Chords

Label: 4AD
US Release Date: 2008-08-19
UK Release Date: 2008-08-18

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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.