By: Eric Greenwood
Morphing through another phase in its equally dilettantish and brilliant musical career, Stereolab returns on its ninth album with a proclivity for 1970's schmaltz, among other things. The squawking jazz bursts of its last album, Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night, have all but disappeared only to be replaced with the familiar cut and paste stylings of, perhaps, its finest album, 1997's Dots And Loops. With the same production team of Jim O'Rourke and John McEntire in tow, it's no wonder the band's past few albums have been so sonically consistent.
Musically, Sound-Dust is a pastiche of the band's recent sonic explorations, as there's no defining sound to speak of. In fact, the first few listens might even lead you to believe that Stereolab has finally run out of steam. Not so fast. So, the scaling, futuristic tones of "Black Ants In Sound-Dust" could easily have been on any Stereolab album of the past five years; the same cannot be said of "Spacemoth" or of many other tracks on this album, however. The notes and arpeggios sound eerily familiar, of course, but the execution is far more organic than usual. Repetition is still a major factor in Stereolab's passive aggressive seduction, but there's a new emphasis on song structure.
Ever the fighters of complacency (?), Stereolab paradoxically slashes its new found sense of structure by pursuing seemingly random musical strands all within the context of single songs. "Spacemoth" has several fully formed stages. The parts are connected loosely, but the song never sounds forced or half-baked. The same goes for the instantly catchy "Captain Easychord" with its airy pop piano bobbing monotonously. Fusing jazz with country and western in itself is bizarre and certainly not recommended, but Stereolab not only pulls it off but does so astoundingly well. "Captain Easychord" demands repeat listens for its depth and wacky, uncharacteristic charisma.
Laetitia Sadier's voice has gotten even more sensual over the years. Her wall of bored detachment crumbles here to reveal an expressive and emotional tone. "Baby Lulu" exemplifies this mild transformation. When she sings "away-oh-way-oh" I am humbled to the point where I would believe anything she said (barring any more communist propaganda, of course). For Stereolab to venture sideways, backwards, and well into the future on an album is hardly news, but to be so consistent about it is remarkable. "The Black Ants" swathes you safely in warm tones of guitar, organ, tack piano, and Sadier's ephemeral voice, which is noticeably higher in the mix than expected.
Stereolab loves switching gears in the second halves of songs- a common occurrence on Sound-Dust. "Double Rocker" builds so slowly as Sadier's French vocals lull you into a trance. The music twinkles and whirs in the background until suddenly everything swells and breaks into a light disco groove. The transition is seamless. Both sections could easily exist in their own right as separate, fully-formed songs, but Stereolab keeps them linked out of some sort of thematic obligation. And "Gus The Mynah Bird" relishes in the sounds of 1970's schmaltz but makes it sound sad and authentic without succumbing to the inherent cheesiness before scattering into futuristic noise debris.
"Naught More Terrific Than Man" would be utter schlock in anyone else's hands, but somehow Stereolab takes what sounds like a Carpenters throwaway and turns it into a hip mid-tempo ballad. And you thought there was no such thing. When Sadier sings "you're not a doctor/you're a wanker" in "Nothing To Do With Me" so happily and sweetly you'd almost think she were being facetious, but that's an old Stereolab trick. Don't let the bouncy delivery fool you. Sadier has a very sharp tongue. Most of her lyrics are hopelessly depressing when you can make them out.
The casual listener will wrongly think that Sound-Dust is just another in a long line of Stereolab albums when it's actually one of the band's most consistent and finely tuned. All of the reasons you ever listened to Stereolab are present on Sound-Dust, only the songwriting has improved and expanded. I think Sadier and guitarist Tim Gane are far under-appreciated as songwriters. It pains me to remove this disc from my stereo, as I am inclined to remain in a state of futuristic limbo with Laetitia Sadier cooing me into a suspended calm, indefinitely.