Purveyors of the finest “space age bachelor pad music” this side of Saturn, Stereolab long ago reserved their slot in the annals of 20th century popular music’s storied halls. With nearly 20 years of relevancy under their wings, the London band continues to argue the cause of pristine pop songwriting in an age when short attention spans chew and spit out the next big internet phenomenon before they can even release a debut. Chemical Chords, their 11th full length, funnels trademark organ drones and crisp guitar through an abbreviating filter as concise as the band has ever played.
French-born siren Laetitia Sadier’s serenades still summon seduction in the compelling intermittence of tracks sung in both English and French. And though her sentiments may have grown shorter as the band’s ethos segued from hazy rockers to reflect more purely pop ambitions, they sound arguably sweeter. Chords‘ focus on melody and mood—the former drawn tight as a bow, the latter an assured, if at times bubbly, effervescence—by now feels automatic. This, in large part, due to co-founder Tim Gane’s increasingly intuitive song craft over the years.
Stereolab still sound, remarkably, like Stereolab (which is to say, like no other band you’ve ever known), their pop chops seemingly effortless. If they so choose, the band could glide easily into their twilight days in regal fashion making music this sharp. “Valley Hi,” at just more than two minutes long, is one of the band’s shortest, and probably the best straightforward head bobber Chords has to offer. The persistent tambourine rattle, abetted with Sadier’s cooed French and keyboards culling a church organ rumble, captivates for its entirety, an all-too brief 2:15. Horns (“Three Women,” “One Finger Symphony,” “Silver Sands”) deliver brassy textures throughout, never cluttering Gane’s intricate compositions but rather adding subtle flourishes at chorus fringes.
How any fan of the pop could find fault with Stereolab’s time-tested formula is at best a mystery to me, at worst an outrage. That they have managed to evade commercial stardom from one consistently stellar record to the next is beyond my comprehension. If prolificacy equated popularity, their fans would be legion, but the sad reality is that they’re still criminally underrated.
Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
Envelopes – Demon
The Sea and Cake – Car Alarm
MP3: “Three Women”