Stereolab has returned! Skeptical? Considering how few bands with their longevity are releasing anything relevant these days, you should be. But Chemical Chords, the band's 11th album (depending on how one counts EPs and compilations), contains some of the most accessible and upbeat Stereolab material since their mid-'90s career highpoint.
The album's opener, "Neon Beanbag" is positively cheerful with vocalist and co-founding member Laetitia Sadier singing, "There's nothing to be sad about ..." (a bit of a departure from the supposedly Marxist lyrical content of their earlier work). The album is peppered with up-tempo, orchestra-laden pop songs — one actually gets the impression they've been listening to a lot of classic Motown lately. After all, tunes such as "The Ecstatic Static" are punctuated with punchy percussion and dreamy string arrangements that'd make Berry Gordy blush. Another marked and appreciated improvement is the vocals — Sadier's beautifully distinctive voice finally gets the treatment it deserves. Sure, she sometimes sings in French, but even then the lyrics should be decipherable ... and now they are.
The majority of the songs are relatively short and upbeat, keeping the album vibrant and interesting throughout. This apparent "short is better" philosophy doesn't always work, though — a couple of the tracks ("One Finger Symphony" and "Valley Hi!") could've benefited from more time and tension but instead end abruptly at the two minute mark just as they're beginning to shine. But the title track veers from the short and poppy feel back into quintessential Stereolab territory. With a lush and lazy build, the track's placement among the more quirky material makes it that much more rewarding a listen. For a band that has occasionally been pulled under by its own dense, drone-filled process, Chemical Chords proves Stereolab can still swim with the best of 'em.
Stereolab plays Thursday, Oct. 9, at the Crofoot Ballroom, 1 S. Saginaw, Pontiac; 248-858-9333.
Laura Witkowski reviews music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.