Occasionally, I think we do records a bit of a disservice by striving so hard to contextualise them. This occurred to me again over the weekend, when I was listening to Stereolab’s 11th (or ninth, it’s hard to count for sure, as Stephen Troussé points out in his perceptive review in the current Uncut) album, “Chemical Chords”.
I’ve held off writing about “Chemical Chords” for a while, not least because for a couple of months I had this incredibly annoying promo copy where all the tracks abruptly cut off after a couple of minutes or so, notionally to prevent piracy.
Chiefly, though, my main problem with the record has been that, judged in the context of Stereolab’s vast and endlessly stimulating back catalogue, it felt like a marginal disappointment. I was, I should mention, pretty obsessed with Stereolab through the ‘90s: they were one of the first bands I ever interviewed (circa “Super-Electric”); the band I saw play more shows than any other; and a really important gateway to lots of other music for me, from Krautrock through to post-rock and beyond.
I suppose, like a lot of their fans, I’d have been contented if they’d stuck with that motorik dronepop of their early years. But to their credit, Stereolab always had a doggedly progressive agenda, piling more and more influences into their malleable songforms.
And this is what they fail to do on “Chemical Chords”, at least superficially. There’s some characteristically interesting ideas in the press release from Tim Gane about how the songs originated with him “messing about with a series of about 70 tiny drum loops”. But while the band might be amusing themselves by changing the rules of the creative process, the results are hugely familiar. Titles like “Neon Beanbag”, “Self Portrait With ‘Electric Brain’” and “Daisy Click Clack” might have seemed charming in 1996, but now they’re treacherously close to self-parody.
“Daisy Click Clack”, in fact, sounds more like the name of an old High Llamas track, and Sean O’Hagan’s voluptuous string and horn arrangements are more pronounced than ever here – though “Daisy Click Clack” itself is a mild departure, being a tremendously jaunty piano wobble that has the distinct whiff of Lieutenant Pigeon and early ’70 novelty hits about it. Tastefully re-imagined, of course.
So much for context, though. Over the weekend, possibly inspired by Stereolab’s own love of critical discourse, I started thinking about how “Chemical Chords” would sound in isolation, untethered from the obligations of context. It’s not a terrifically good path for music criticism to take in general, but it’s useful to try and invent new ears from time to time – especially when you know so much, maybe too much, about a specific band.
What struck me, really, was that “Chemical Chords”, judged in this way, emerges as a thoroughly entertaining record. It’s not essential to know about the labyrinthine avant-garde methods which the band followed to create these effervescent, syncopated bursts of pop music. It’s positively liberating to forget about the riches that have preceded it in Stereolab’s career. It’s simply a bright, boisterous, meticulous 48 minutes of songs, with one killer fuzzed-out instrumental, “Pop Molecule”.
But then it occurred to me. Maybe this is how most people who aren’t paid to analyse and think about music actually listen to records: unhindered by expectation and perspective; actively keen to find pleasure rather than fault. “Chemical Chords” is a lovely summer record – perhaps, sometimes, that should be all there is to it?