Has it really been 17 years and 11 albums for Stereolab? I can still remember the thrill of seeing/hearing their second single, “Super-Electric,” thanks to Australia’s national television service, the ABC. Offering a positive out from the muddy puddle shoegazing had flopped into, its Krautrock propulsion, laminar drones and blankly seductive vocals felt like new territory, even as it brashly mined 1970s German modernism and 1960s Radiophonic Workshop aesthetics for its audio-visual presentation. Listen back: it still bristles with ideas, and somewhere in there – maybe it’s in the upward lilt/lift of Sadier’s vocals, and/or the percolations of the Moog – you can hear a lot of what Stereolab have done since. Those ‘detours’ into Tropicalia, French chanson, electronica, drum’n’bass, Italian soundtracks, etc, all flagged via the ambition of one song. No small feat, eh?
If the last few Stereolab albums proper (Cobra & Phases Group Sing Voltage in the Milky Night, Sound Dust, Margerine Eclipse) delicately traced their uniquely modular approach to songwriting – melodies and arrangements as Tetris parts, instrumentation painted onto a Rubik’s Cube, songs as Lego bricks – Chemical Chords re-purposes the band. The streamlined logic of these 14 songs comes close to unilateral disarmament. They’ve conjured the energy and ingenuity of a band a third their age. All those modular moments that would have wound out over minutes on songs like “Blue Milk” now fly past in seconds. Witness, for example, the warbled backing vox in “Self Portrait with ‘Electric Brain,’” the brass miniatures strewn throughout the record, and the pearl-stitch guitars that spin in and out of the mix.
In his notes for the album, Tim Gane mentions he was after “Purposefully short, dense, fast pop songs,” and that’s what Stereolab have achieved here, but the shift in approach is fluid, natural. If you gave up on the group around the time of Emperor Tomato Ketchup, they’ve probably just made the album you’ve been waiting for, but there’s enough avant-logic here that it also slots in neatly as the next step in the Stereolab continuum.
Which reminds me, it’s actually hard to say anything significantly new about Stereolab. Listing Chemical Chords’ key features, I came up with Sean O’Hagan’s lovingly tended arrangements, Motown-esque beats, glass-thread webs of guitar lines, Laetitia Sadier’s enchanted voice, electronics that twist down wormholes only to reappear carrying beautiful melodies on their backs, chord changes that leap gracefully to unexpected places… Welcome to, uh, any Stereolab album from the past 10 years. Chemical Chords is more compact, true, but they’ve not lost their character through economy.
So I’m guessing some people are going to hear Chemical Chords and grouse about Stereolab still sounding like Stereolab, as though they should undergo some great mutation between each album. Fuck that: I can think of few groups extant who take risks in their music while staying true to their essential selves and maintaining over-ground/populist relevance. Sonic Youth are about the only group comparable, and like SY, Stereolab’s ongoing project (glibly put: retro-futurism without the goofball inanity) still has serious legs. New things out of old things? It’s recycle or die these days, people…