Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Chemical Chords - Stereolab

Chemical Chords

4AD Records.

SCQ Rating: 69%

Like Belle and Sebastian or Nine Inch Nails, Stereolab are virtual figureheads of a genre they’ve helped spearhead from its inception. A more complicated genre than B&S’s twee or NIN’s industrial-electro is the retro-twee-futurist-lounge-whatever that critics create to label the Stereolab sound with. Sure, these sub-genres are ridiculous rabbit-holes for music nerds (like me) to debate the merits of, but the critics have a point: through their diverse pools of creativity, this six-piece have truly crafted and caressed a sound no other band, with scruples, could replicate. For years, I sought to tackle the Stereolab sound and make them a band in my life, yet each time I listened in, the music felt like transient lounge for the hipster dinner-party. No insult to hipsters intended; I just never host dinner parties. So upon the release of Chemical Chords, the band’s colourful new full-length, I averted my usual routine by purchasing it before listening. That way, I’m stuck with it.

A month later, I swear this impulsive strategy is paying off. Although a first-impression of Chemical Chords is like the first-impression of any Stereolab album in that “Yes, it sounds like Stereolab” kind of way, several contributions have pushed this beyond their usual output. Firstly, Stereolab have taken the swing and momentum of Motown under their wing, infusing their tried-and-true with a deeper sense of vitality. Word has it Joe Watson, Lab ringleader, formed most of these song ideas through exercises in repetition; simple chord changes and staccato time signatures that when explored, became chemical. The repetition is ever-present, the impenetrable foundation to all the brass, keyboard and bass hooks laid overtop.

Another essential contributor to Chemical Chords’ success is Sean O’ Hagan, who has apparently worked with the ‘Lab in the past, and has provided a wealth of horns, strings and soul to the proceedings. ‘The Ecstatic Sunshine’s orchestration, a mix of daybreak horns and lazy strings, give graceful swells to pacify those punchy keyboard stikes while ‘Three Women’ finds O’ Hagan seamlessly weaving horns into the regular Stereolab recipes.

There are still experiments galore – the fuzz-rock of ‘Pop Molecule (Molecular Pop #1)’ or the robotic ‘Nous Vous Demandons Pardon’ – but none as attention-grabbing or tedious as those that repeled me upon hearing Dots and Loops or Sound-Dust. Instead, these forays into further off-beat territory suit the grab-bag whimsy of Chemical Chords, a fourteen track collection that wanders many alleys but stays true to its lounge-meets-motown heart. If you’re a fan of Stereolab’s discography, there’s no room for error with this latest album; all the expected strengths remain intact (girl group melodies, wellplayed shout-outs to 60s idealism, all blender-mixed with their mechanical, semi-electronic leanings). I suppose I should get on writing those invitations, then.

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