Stereolab were an essential part of the 90s and a flipside to the wave of angst-ridden guitar bands that characterised that decade. Influenced by obscure experimental and pop bands, Stereolab set about creating a post-rock avant-garde sound that would hold them in high regard with critics and music fans alike. Returning with their eleventh album in a career that has already spanned eighteen years, Chemical Chords finds Stereolab rewriting their pop manifesto.
It’s chicken or the egg question when I try and remember what it was that drew me to Stereolab. The hypnotic half-inched Neu! rhythms, the antique analogue synth melodies, or Laetitia Sadier’s voice. Her stunning looks and seductive Gallic tones seemed to be at once soothing and alluring. Her bilingual vocals gave the band an extra depth, part political, part philosophical that combined with Tim Gane’s penchance for krautrock and avant-garde artists made Stereolab an intelligent band by default. You could either follow/translate Sadier’s messages or Gane’s influences or both. During the mid-90s, the Stereolab sound mutated into a mix of bossanova rhythms and lounge music cool, which divided fans who weren’t so impressed.
It is then with great surprise to realise that Chemical Chords could well be the best Stereolab album in recent years. Written and recorded very quickly, it becomes apparent from an initial listen that songs aren’t entirely a predictable mélange of bossanova rhythms and Laetitia’s occasionally irritating “doop-doop-doop’s”. Songs are still cut from the same Stereolab cloth, but this time there’s a distinct and delectable 60 feel to the record — the Monkees harpsichord sound, the Beach Boys upbeat bop. The title track is a symphonic surprise with its sweeping strings, reminiscent of Emperor Tomato Ketchup-era single “Cybele’s Reverie”. The burst of Motown horns on “Three Women” and the spritely toe-tapper “Self Portrait with Electric Brain’ dazzle under the glow of longtime collaborator and High Illama, Sean O’Hagan strings and brass arrangements. “Pop Molecule” with its back-masked drum loop teasingly (and briefly) recalls the old groop grooves from a decade ago.
Having viewed each successive Stereolab release of the last decade with palpable caution and wariness, Chemical Chords is a refreshing and enjoyable listen. Whatever the circumstances that brought this around, be it Tim Gane’s intent to create a collection of “purposefully short, dense, fast pop songs” or the collision of Gane’s ideas with O’Hagan’s arrangements, Chemical Chords is the last of the great summer records of 2008.