Tuesday, August 19, 2008

New, Exciting Stereolab! - Chemical Chords

I go back to school in a week and a half. I'm not excited about this for a wide variety of reasons, not least of which being that my already modest writing output will probably decrease once I actually, y'know, have shit to do. As for this summer, my laziness surprisingly wasn't my main problem. I've just been more passionate about the old classics I've discovered than the new stuff I've heard. I mean, what is there left to be said about Remain in Light? Although on a personal note, it's simultaneously inspiring and disappointing to find out that one of the greatest bands ever masterfully accomplished 30 years ago what you're trying to do now while fucking around with your friend on a keyboard. But I digress.

Along with that new CYNE LP I just reviewed, this is probably the album I've been most eagerly anticipating this summer. I'll readily admit that I'm something of a Stereolab fanboy. When I first heard Dots and Loops this past spring, I couldn't bring myself to listen to anything else besides Stereolab for at least two weeks. I'm a sucker for "loungy" chord progressions and harmonies, and Stereolab manages to somewhat rely on them while making innovative and edgy music. Add Laetitia Sadier's and the late Mary Hansen's breezy vocal stylings to the mix, and you have magic.

A common complaint launched against Stereolab, and their post Emperor Tomato Ketchup catalogue in particular, is that all of their shit begins to sound the same after a while. While I would contend that the groop has evolved with each release, their "basic" (their stuff can be quite complex) formula of creating pretty, dreamy retro-leaning pop has pretty much remained unchanged since 1997, including Chemical Chords. Tim Gane has said that he was looking for a "Motown or girl group sound," specifically referring to the tightness of individual songs (I strongly recommend reading the interview, his method for creating this album is incredibly interesting and unorthodox).

And the songs on Chemical Chords are tight. At 16 songs, only one track extends beyond 5 minutes, which is a first for any Stereolab record. Chemical Chords also contains some of the most rhythmically complex work I've heard on any Stereolab release. "Daisy Click Clack" begins with an almost ragtime-y piano line, with the guitar soon coming in and playing a similarly syncopated part over shimmering synthesizers. The song is a great example of how Stereolab's music can be satisfying on multiple levels; although it makes for a very easy, pleasant listen, closer inspection reveals just how well arranged it is.

And because of its intricate rhythms and arrangements, Chemical Chords is easily one of the most upbeat, playful Stereolab LPs I've heard. If it had come out in June or July, it would've made a perfect soundtrack for the summer. Weaving between Sadier's vocals on "Three Women," there is a lot of light interplay between the horn, keyboard, and rhythm sections that I can only describe as uplifting. The same can be said all of the several other similarly packed moments on the album, as none of the sounds are ever layered to the point of becoming overbearing. Even on tracks with several harmonic and melodic changes such as "Fractal Dream of a Thing," every moment feels as if it logically progresses from the last.

I think this speaks to a criticism I've read that Chemical Chords, while a gorgeous album, fails to leave much of a lasting impression on its listener. There are many different recurring sections on a song that it takes multiple listens to fully absorb them, and with 16 tracks to listen through, it's difficult to instantly point to a particular moment as a favorite. I personally see this as the one of the album's strengths, as I'll be able to get more and more out of it a long time to come.

Stereolab's Myspace
Stereolab - "Fractal Dream of a Thing"

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