Thursday, August 21, 2008

Stereolab - Chemical Chords (***1/2)

Is there a more appropriate title for a Stereolab record than Chemical Chords? Those two words practically define the London-based chic-pop band's entire sound. Since their inception in the early 90s, the Stereolab sound hasn't altered much - it's always been in the minimalist kraut-pop/space-lounge vein - yet each of the group's 11 records so far have managed to stand apart from the last. Wisely, chief composer and songwriter Tim Gane has a propensity for subtly tweaking their infallible sound ever so slightly between releases to avoid stagnation, so much so that I'd venture to call Stereolab the most consistently wonderful band of the last 15 years.

Their fantastic new record Chemical Chords again adds subtle wrinkles, presenting the band in a more concise and immediate mindset, with 14 hugely melodic songs each hovering around the 3-4 minute range. The defining characteristic of Chemical Chords isn't the welcome concision however, it's the horn and string arrangements which buoy the rubber band rhythms and seamlessly blend into the Lab's primary setup of guitar, bass, organ, drum machine and Moog synth. The high flying strings come courtesy of one Sean O'Hagan, who along with Nico Muhley and Owen Pallet have formed a sort of indie-rock triumvirate of string arrangers, and his work here provides a beautiful backdrop for the Motown inspired percussion & horn accoutrements that Gane had previously hinted at but never fully embraced.

As is most often the case however, Lætitia Sadier's heavenly French-lilt still stands out from whatever production tweaks Gane manages to throw against their core sound. She navigates her French and English lyrics with equal aplomb, coating Ganes' wonders of pop ingenuity with her glossy sing-speak while dolling out generous amounts of wordless hooks as if by second nature. The fact that this band has stayed so true to their sound while remaining so consistently relevant over the years is tribute to both Gane and Sadier's songwriting prowess, not to mention their always en vogue pool of influences. Right alongside 2001s Dots and Loops, I'd probably say Chemical Chords is best Stereolab record of the new millennium so far. However, if history is any indication, there is plenty more where this came from.

Highlights: "Neon Beanbag", "One Finger Symphony", "Valley Hi!", "Pop Molecule", "Fractal Dream of a Thing"

Video: Stereolab - "Three Women"

"Cellulose Sunshine"

"The Ecstatic Static"

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