Words like “introspective” and “heart-baring” are rarely used to describe Stereolab’s music. But then there’s the last minute of “Whisper Pitch”, the eighth track on their new album Fab Four Suture. There’s Laetitia Sadier, after singing in a more distanced yet determined tone about connection between human beings, and our own responsibility for how we treat each other. switching to sing sweetly, openly, about how pleasing that connection can be. “Thank you so much… it feels so good… it feels alive and real again.” Their music has perhaps sounded this intimate before, but never has Sadier’s voice cut through the layers of style in such a direct way, to express a feeling that sounded so personal.
Throughout Fab Four Suture, Sadier’s singing has a serious, forlorn tone to it, even when the music sounds shiny and new. The album’s lyrics together form a lament for the state of the world today — for war, for governments suppressing freedom, for the powerlessness that everyday people feel in the face of it all — along with an encouragement to humans to work together, treat each other like people, and push for governments that would do the same.
Stereolab’s lyrics have always been political in a philosophical, big-picture way, more about systems of power than about particular issues or individuals. And those sentiments have always been easy to overlook, floating as they do over a sensuous mixture of synthesizers and beats and guitars and voices. The ideas seem more foregrounded than ever on Fab Four Suture, though I imagine it’s just as easy to listen past them, given the stylish, colorful atmosphere that they’re hiding in. In a way that makes their ideas about the world’s problems hit so much harder than if the lyrics read like lectures and the music was built around them like a pulpit; that is, if they resembled what most people mean what they think of political music. When you’re listening to the textures, to the melodies, to the overall sound of the music, and you stumble across some words about “fake morality” or nihilism, you’re likely to lean in closer, to try and figure them out like a puzzle… which is what Stereolab’s distinct blend of styles often resembles anyway.
Fab Four Suture opens and closes with a theatrical vamp — “Kyberneticka Babicka” — which frames the album as a warped carnival dream. Sadier sings “aahs” and “las” to the tune, which winds hypnotically in circles, marching along as if a few psychedelic rockers and a couple renegade members of a classical ensemble joined forces to run through the Philip Glass discography. After the opening fanfare the group snaps into a sexy, brassy groove, as they often do on Fab Four Suture, occasionally even partway through a song, or from one groove to another.
On Fab Four Suture Stereolab’s genre obsessions and instruments are woven together tightly, their sound dense and full. Sadier sings capably along with herself, the late Mary Hansen’s absence no longer leaving a noticeable hole in the vocal set-up. Horns make a notable impression, and along with a certain style of guitar lick they help to evoke ’70s funk on tracks like “Eye of the Volcano”. Synthesizers are often in abundance, and on songs like “Visionary Road Maps” and “Vodiak”, they’re used in a way that’s evocative of ’80s new wave pop, not just the usually referenced Krautrock of the ’70s. Those two songs also share a storybook-like aura of fantasy, one which is evoked through textures and touches during much of the album, especially the more slumberous ballads. It’s a fairytale mood as on 2001’s Sound-Dust, only much more vivid and rich. “Widow Weirdo” at first has a similar lazy-day feeling, but then the song perks up, with jazzy guitar, muted horns, and a shuffling beat taking the song in a new direction. Scattered throughout the album are moments like this when Stereolab regroups mid-song, generally shifting towards a tougher, more robust approach.
“Robust” is a perfect descriptive word for the album, which presents a full, confident-sounding Stereolab. To an extent that was true as well of their last proper studio album, 2003’s Margarine Eclipse, though that album felt a bit more like a retread, like they were creating the Stereolab album that listeners would most expect but then making it sound a bit fuller. This album sounds rich and new. Like all their best recordings, it sounds both like a “typical Stereolab album” and like nothing they’ve done before. In the moment when you’re listening (grooving, appreciating, experiencing) it feels more like the latter.
And somehow it’s fitting for a group that has released so much music in so many different forms — 7″ singles, CD EPs, mini-albums, box sets — that such a cohesive, involving, pleasurable-as-an-album album would actually consist mostly of songs that were previously released…in some form anyway. Fab Four Suture is technically referred to by the band as a “compilation”, because all of its songs are also available on singles: three 7″ singles that were released in 2005, and three that come out the same day as the album itself. Stereolab, who still does a tour-only single for nearly every tour they embark on, has a discography filled with releases that are hard to classify (is it a compilation, an LP, or something else?). That ambiguity enhances the magic that exists around each release. That magic can be found in their music as well. On Fab Four Suture it’s easy to find.