Hesitant Steps Into the Future: Stereolab and the Walkmen

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The New York Sun

Stereolab has made the musical equivalent of 1960s European art-house cinema for nearly 20 years now. Since forming in London in 1990, the group has melded lounge pop, 1970s-style German rock (better known as “Krautrock”), and electronic music with the sort of dense intellectualism that can be found in graduate student dissertations on political theory. It all makes for a plush cocktail that evokes French New Wave stars such as Alain Delon and Delphine Seyrig, wandering aimlessly around exotic locations, talking dispassionately about love, metaphysics, and the revolutionary shortcomings of the bourgeoisie. Just as these actors and actresses were often immortalized in sumptuous cinematography, Stereolab’s music is lovingly created and recorded, sometimes with analog equipment instead of the impersonal perfection of the digital age, like a retro version of the future.

It’s the formula the band clings to on “Chemical Chords,” Stereolab’s ninth studio album, which is out today on 4AD records. From the drum loop and plinking keyboard intro of album-opener “Neon Beanbag” to the galloping duet of beat track and synthesizer that powers “One Finger Symphony” to the imperative French title of “Nous Vous Demandons Pardon” to the self-consciously mashed-up title of “Self Portrait With ‘Electric Brain,'” “Chemical Chords” is unmistakably Stereolab for its entire 14 tracks. The album is as catchy and jaunty as anything the group — anchored by British songwriting guitarist-keyboardist Tim Gane and French vocalist-keyboardist Laetitia Sadier — has ever done. It’s just not very memorable at all.

It seems the band may have become a victim of its own success. Its sizzling combinations of electronic music, retro pop, rock energy, and vague politics were a revelation in the early ’90s. With Mr. Gane’s bubbling, sinuous grooves and Ms. Sadier’s dulcet, icy alto singing (in both French and English), Stereolab’s arty allusions — 1996’s “Emperor Tomato Ketchup,” for example, was named for Japanese director Shuji Terayama’s 1971 underground film of the same name, and the group has made frequent lyrical nods to art movements such as the Situationists — made the band unabashedly esoteric, cosmopolitan, and sensuous at a time when American independent music was inflating its ego (see: Tortoise) or romantically looking backward (see: Wilco). Stereolab was a band using yesterday to try to sound like tomorrow.

The problem is that the sound of tomorrow hasn’t changed for more than a decade now. Nothing about “Chemical Chords” is a failure — merely underwhelming. It’s as if Stereolab has become so accomplished at mixing its experimental cocktail that its unique, plush sound has become part of the landscape, and now it feels merely tepid. Only on “Three Women” — an allusion to Robert Altman’s 1977 film, perhaps — with its jumpy bass line and brassy horns, does the band sound as lithe and pertinent as it once did.

* * *

New York-based quintet the Walkmen also haven’t changed their sound much since forming out of the ashes of the abysmal Jonathan Fire*Eater, but what they do is harder to pin down. Ostensibly a retro-leaning rock band, even at their most traditionally rocking — such as the 2004 kiss-off single “The Rat,” from “Bows and Arrows” — the Walkmen sound distant, as if broadcast through an old radio. Part of that feel is a result of the band’s production, which lays a wide-bodied aesthetic on its elemental music.

But a larger part of the mood is that the band has become extremely adept at writing songs that imply a great scope with only a few musical parts — frizzy drums, spare guitars, strained vocals — and even those parts sound as if they’re on the verge of dissipating into the ether.

That alluring instability was displayed sparingly on the group’s 2002 debut, “Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone,” but it is the defining concept on its new album “You and Me,” which is released today on Gigantic Records. Through the album’s 14 songs, the band slouches toward some epic event that’s either transcendent or apocalyptic, but it never quite gets there. “You and Me” is an album of fits and starts, and it sounds like interrupted frustration is its overriding theme.

The record opens with one of the more laconic tunes in the band’s songbook, “Dónde está la Playa,” which features muffled percussion, ringing guitars, and a molasses pace that establishes an apprehensive mood worthy of Leonard Cohen. A foreboding shadow covers the entire album, from the atmospheric downer “Flamingos (for Colbert)” to the spacious lament “If Only It Were True,” which closes the album and features vocalist Hamilton Leithauser trying to howl like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and falling short; his limited range and cracking voice only magnify the song’s resigned hopelessness. Mostly, the band sounds like it’s stumbling through the city after last call, trying to go anywhere but home.

That the Walkmen do so in a grandly acerbic manner lends “You and Me” a certain shabby majesty. From the simmering “Seven Years of Holidays (for Stretch),” which opens with Mr. Leithauser blithely confessing, “I’ve lost the world as we know it,” to the off-kilter “In the New Year,” in which Mr. Leithauser tosses off “I’m still living / at the old address” as if it’s the first part of the line that surprises him, the Walkmen tread through solemn terrain without growing tedious or redundant. “You and Me” doesn’t house a single as catchy or up-tempo as “The Rat,” but it is more elusive and less eager to please than anything else the band has done.

Admittedly, it would be easy to denigrate “You and Me” as Tom Waits lite, but that superficial dismissal would miss the many nooks, crannies, and fissures the songs have to offer. There’s no telling how fans will respond to this album, but even after numerous listens, “You and Me” still feels as though it hasn’t fully revealed itself.

The New York Sun

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