October 31, 2001

Stereolab "Sound-Dust"

Stereolab's about ten years old now. Where did the time go? Certainly for a band who has crafted some of the more literate, intelligent pop music, time could be seen as a blessing or a curse. There's something to be said for longevity. In some instances, success comes to those who work hard, independently, and place their creative vision ahead of their desires for success--Charlie Rich, Guided by Voices, and Stephin Merritt come to mind. Others, however, suffer for their inability to die off--the Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth, and Kiss, for example. It would be easy to take a half full/half empty argument with Stereolab--either the band has honed its craft to a fine point, or they've become so wrapped up in a "formula" that they've lost their edge. In fact, there have been some reviews of Sound-Dust that have been downright mean about the fact that they're still doing their thing after ten years--indicating that said reviewers have either never really liked Stereolab, or haven't really heard much Stereolab, or are just two dollars short of being stupid.

Luckily for Stereolab, Sound-Dust is a damn fine album. For the first time in their long, storied career, they have made an album that isn't bogged down in the heaviness of a single musical idea, or filled with mediocre songs or half-baked ideas. It's always been a telling fact that Stereolab's best albums to date have been their singles/rarities collections, simply because they are *varied* in sound, style, and vision. Sound-Dust is the first actual factual Stereolab album to sound varied in sound and vision.

And boy, does it sound nice! Sound-Dust kicks off with "Black Ants in Sound-Dust," a fun little song that documents Stereolab chanteuse Laetitia Sadier going through a vocal warm-up, and then segues seemlessly into "Space Moth," a long song that is in reality three lovely songs mixed into one. The first single for the album, "Captain Easychord" follows, and, again, follows the same idea of "start off playing one song, and then totally change songs in the middle." The first part of the song, ironically, shows a new influence---Ben Folds Five???? Yeah, shocked me, too.
"Baby Lulu" shows that they're still into that whole Space Age lounge music thing. Then, on "The Black Arts," the band shocks---actual singing! Not this song as Marxist-politic meets voice as instrument ideology. Nope, Sadier is actually singing an understandable, non-abstract lyrics. "I need somebody/I feel so lonely/Somebody to share my scarcity," she sings, with lack of irony, and actually showing, what's that? Emotion? When you listen to track ten, however, "Nothing To Do With Me," however--be prepared to laugh...with lines such as "Did you prescribe my daughter a shot of heroin" and "It's the bed-wetting thing that brought us here, doctor." It's easily one of the funniest songs in their entire career.

Of course,Sound-Dust is a pleasant document of a veteran band finally finding a balance between their experimental side and their pop-oriented side. Is Sound-Dust an indication that Stereolab is in a rut? Hardly. Like their previous albums, this latest Stereolab offering is genius in its own right. Sure, it's a slightly more simplistic genius than their last few efforts, but then again, if Sound-Dust were to continue the styles of their previous releases, that wouldn't be genius, that would be a rut. Critics be damned, this is Stereolab's best album to date.

--Joseph Kyle

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