April 12, 2006

Stereolab "Fab Four Suture"

Stereolab is a smart band. Over the last 15 years, they’ve released 10 albums, 20+ EPs and six compilations --- enough material to make their biggest fans sell their firstborn children to collect every note. I understand their devotion, though: the band is incapable of making a bad record, and with each successive release they tinker with their sound just enough to keep fans on their toes without alienating them. Of course, a drawback of such consistency is that each new Stereolab album gets dismissed by a growing cadre of lazy critics as “more of the same.” However, any Stereolab fan can tell you that the dense sonic overload of Margerine Eclipse was a far cry from the airy fantasia of Sound-Dust, which itself was a far cry from the fusion-jazz experiments of Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, which itself was a far cry from the squelchy post-rock of Dots and Loops…you get the point. Although their latest album Fab Four Suture bears all of the earmarks of a Stereolab record, it certainly isn’t “more of the same.”

Stereolab challenges its listeners by opening and closing Fab Four Suture with the two-part “Kyberneticka Babicka,” arguably the most repetitive song the band has ever made. The band spends all 10 minutes of the song alternating between three chords, while drummer Andy Ramsay plays a light, loping rhythm that never changes. Like all great minimalist pieces, “Kyberneticka” changes so little on the surface that the little gradations underneath have greater impact than they normally would. When Tim Gane’s guitar plays on the one instead of the three, you’ll notice. When Laetitia Sadier stops singing “ahhh” and starts singing “ba-ba,” you’ll notice. When the band leans on one chord for more than two bars at a time, you’ll notice. ADD sufferers, fear not: Stereolab takes bigger and more frequent detours on the album’s other 10 songs.

“Interlock” starts out as a minor-key romp reminiscent of ‘60s Motown R&B, with Laetitia compensating for deceased co-vocalist Mary Hansen’s absence by singing higher than her normal range. At around the 1:30 mark, the band switches to a disco romp, only to return to the song’s original motif 90 seconds later. This sandwich-like approach to song structure is repeated on “Get a Shot of the Refrigerator.” During the song’s brief bridge, the band slows the song down to half its original speed, and changes the key from major to minor. “I Was a Sunny Rainphase” starts out as up-tempo spy-movie pop, then segues into an odd-metered bridge in which Ramsay’s kit is replaced by a drum program, and every chord change is announced by a gorgeous swell of horns. Songs begin with ideas that are quickly abandoned and never reappear (“Plastic Mile,” “Widow Weirdo”), or end with tangents that bear no relation to the music that preceded it (“Eye of the Volcano,” “Visionary Road Maps”). Stereolab performs these transitions with a fluidity that can only come from constant rehearsal and precise studio editing (the awkward splice on “Rainphase” notwithstanding).

Fab Four Suture has a bounciness to it that occasionally recalls the band’s 1996 masterwork Emperor Tomato Ketchup, although the newer songs aren’t quite as catchy. The cheekily titled “Excursions into ‘Oh, A-Oh’” (like I said, Stereolab’s a smart band), which lays reversed tape loops and distorted synthesizers on top of a motorik groove, definitely could’ve been a long-lost Emperor outtake. Overall, it sounds as if Stereolab is moving beyond the grief that was so palpable on Margerine Eclipse (their first album without Mary), and consolidating their strengths as their second decade as a band draws to a close. You can add another notch to their ever-growing tally of satisfying albums.

Artist Website: www.stereolab.co.uk
Label Website: www.toopure.com

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