Analogue synths, vaguely cheesecore lounge-isms, oblique wordplay (mostly in French). Yes, Stereolab are back.
The anglo-gallic pairing of Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier has long been giving us a kind of strangely platonic ideal version of alternative pop history. Theirs is a world where everyone loves the bubbly synth stylings of the late 60s, when the Moog was the size of a Welsh dresser. On this, their ninth album, Sean O'Hagan's horn and string charts signify not only Brian Wilson's zenith, but also the horny horns of Fred Wesley. Well, to be more accurate, the brainy horns. The groove doesn't really take flight. It's an intellectual excercise in white dance music.: Kinder-funk that makes Talking Heads look like the Ohio Players. What's more it detracts from the band's most endearing quality; their nursery rhyme simplicity, imbued with degree-level smarts.
But this is the paradox with the Stezzas; their meandering, repetitive ditties signify innocence and fun, but as soon as Laetitia intones those oblique, situationist lyrics the jollity seems a little arch. The whole package tends to work best if you reject the (undoubtedly bourgeois) concept of the singer as focus point and relegate her flat tones to the role of instrumentation. With this in mind it's the more varied pallette of glockenspiel, harpsichord or even wobbly guitar that leaps out. Overall making Chemical Chords a definite move away from the band's normal fare. Mind you, it has taken them eight albums and 16 years to get here.
Opener neon Beanbag (it seems almost like they're parodying their own song titles these days) tells us, ''There's nothing to be sad about'', and Daisy Click Clack (see what I mean?) intones "Clap clap clap clap all will join in/Tap tap tap tap simple rhythm'', but then ends with the typically cryptic, ''sensing the symbiotic forces''. This balance of childlike wonder and third-year thesis will always make the band a cult proposition.
Elsewhere the usual mixture of Beach Boys atmospherics (Chemical Chords) and motorik drumming is reliably on the money. Having said this The Fractal Dream Of A Thing actually manages to incorporate skew-whiff offbeats that make the terrain slightly less monotonous. On their own terms Stereolab are on stonking form here. But as many people discovered about ten years ago, how much room can you make in your life for another of their albums, when the results are nearly always the same, no matter how clever? Fans can rejoice, the rest of us can move along... --Chris Jones
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Stereolab - Chemical Chords - cod:9758