STEREOLAB – ‘Chemical Chords’ (4AD)

December 8, 2008

I live with Stereolab in my heart. It feels almost like I know them personally, so fond am I of their music. Even when they’re being shit, I love them. On some of the tracks on Chemical Chords, they are being a bit shit, but I forgive them for that, because I love them.

‘The Ecstatic Static’ is an interesting song title and almost sums up what’s going on here. I understand that this record was made very quickly – and it sounds that way. Stereolab fans will find loads of gems, but those who aren’t already indoctrinated will probably find themselves slightly nonplussed. I’ve hammered the album now and still find certain songs drifting past me, but I remember my first listen left me feeling a bit short-changed, to say the least.

Virtually none of the songs had a proper ending. They all seemed to either fade out or stop dead at the end of a cycle in a totally unsatisfactory way. The silence at the end of certain songs seemed almost embarrassing. Is that it? I wondered.

I started to consider the record as something of a sketchpad, or, more precisely, a working record. By which I mean, a record made whilst going from one place to another. A curate’s egg, something they were capable of doing at the time, without really surpassing themselves – Tim Gane, off the top of his head, set up some tracks, let them flow, got Laetitia Sadier to shake her not inconsiderable thang on top and that was kind of it. Move fast, keep the tracks short.

Some of the structures are, of course, brilliant, but one of the album highlights, ‘Valley Hi’, features one of the laziest musical changes I’ve ever heard. It sounds like they had two parts and simply couldn’t be arsed to bridge them, so welded them together- voila! A cut and shut. It is only the extreme quality of the second part – a delicious coda powered along by luscious, lovely smooth roto bass thrum – that allows them to get away with it. I’m so thrilled by it that I kind of forget what came before. Which is actually a really nice part.

The first two songs, ‘Neon Beanbag’ and ‘Three Women’ are absolutely brilliant. ‘Neon’ has a superb shimmy to it, which Sadier replicates with her warm ‘doo-wop’, which has been treated to make it sound kind of translucent. It sits in with the track so organically. ‘Three Women’ follows up with a shit-hot groove, two note bass repeating, adroit, across the slave drums, then the bass turns round and trips in the chorus, while a sheet of trebly organ descends and brass suaves in to lift the whole thing into quite magnificent propulsion.

Then song after song comes in with a promising idea and disappears off leaving nary a waft of an impression.

Track 8 ‘Pop Molecule’ is basically their repetition song, ‘Kyberneticka Babicka’, redux. I remember being really thrilled with that when I bought it on 7”. Then I played it to my friend Yuri, who just laughed and said, “they can release anything, can’t they?” I was rather stung by that. Am I a sucker?

Yeah, I’m a sucker.

But a sucker who is REWARDED by the beautiful ‘Daisy Click Clack’, which follows a bunch of so-so numbers, stretching from track 7, ‘Silver Sands’, which actually just isn’t very good, to track 12, ‘Fractal Dream of a Thing’, which is the most interesting of the lot and certainly one of the better things on Chemical Chords. It has a great, rhythmic, rapped vocal moment and a swooning ‘chorus’, which terminates in a lovely one-note solo. With development, it could have been a classic.

All hail the one-note solo! Neil Young knows it and Tim Gane knows it too, in a very different way. ‘Daisy Click Clack’, which is utterly fantastic, has one too. It’s clean and simple, skipping across the more complex and layered backing track, which is a whimsical, formal, off-kilter piano-led woozy sway, with lots of vibes. Subtle, clever, hits you in the heart. This is why I love them.

The version I bought has bonus tracks, so I’m not sure where the regular album finishes. I would imagine track 14, ‘Vortica Phonetique’, is on the album – and dashed good it is too. Simon Johns gets his bass working, the structure develops with a pleasingly natural complexity. It’s a builder, with nice drop downs and ‘ba ba bas’. Weirdly, there’s a triptych of some of the best stuff on the LP clustered right at the end.

In the end, this album feels like something Tim Gane toyed with for a week, before sauntering off to forget it over a decent lunch.

I’m glad he did it.

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