With the discovery of DNA, cell biology moved into a digital realm: the existence of every living being is driven by varying combination of just four molecular bases. With the advent of digital media, the music we listen to began to enter our brains in the form of 1’s and 0’s. On its latest album, Chemical Chords, Stereolab has apparently set out to explore the area where these two concepts meet: an examination of the ways the pleasure center of our brain is stimulated when bombarded with pure pop music.
On the opening track, “Neon Beanbag,” Laetitia Sadier coos, “There’s nothing to feel sad about/there’s nothing to feel bad about,” as if to tell us to look elsewhere for political polemics or big ideas. You’re getting exactly what the album title implies: lots and lots of pretty chords that will hopefully get you hooked, like when you start eating a bag of gummi bears and end up eating the whole thing.
Of course, if you’re going to place all your stock in catchiness, you’d better make sure you can sustain it without flagging. It’s rather unfortunate then, that for as much emphasis as the band places on the mechanics of pop songwriting, they come up short as often as they do. One would expect a better hook from a song with a title as mouthwatering as “Pop Molecule,” which hammers away at a single, monotonous riff for two minutes. Other songs are able to more effectively probe the chemical reactions of hearing wonderful music: “Cellulose Sunshine” utilizes harpsichord and flutes to warm our hearts. “Self Portrait with electric brain'” appears to be based on the intriguing conceit of those 1’s and 0’s jostling around in our head: the electric brain’ is ours. This approach has its pratfalls, though: songs like “Silver Sands” and the ragtime jaunt “Daisy Click Clack” may sound fun at first, but aside from its pretty piano parts, the songs basically spin its wheels for its durations. It’s as if the band hopes that if they robotically repeat a single hook enough times, it’ll stick.
Cranking a single riff again and again isn’t always a bad thing, though. A band like the Go! Team has mastered this method (go back and listen to “Grip Like a Vice”), so it only makes sense that Proof of Youth is one of this album’s closest spiritual cousins. Kick it off with a boffo rocker (and first single), keep it going with another uptempo number that will hopefully become another single, then cool it down with a short instrumental. But any momentum that Chemical Chords builds is killed off by a pair of (relatively) lengthy and aimless drones that are kind of pretty, but ultimately leave listeners itching to get back to that pop they were promised at the beginning. “Valley Hi!,” the best song on the album, shows up just in time to turn things around, serving up two distinct, yet massively satisfying sections in just 2:14. From thereon out, it’s both hit and miss, with the uptempo songs actually packing less of a punch than subtler numbers such as “Nous Vous Demandons Pardon.”
In the end, a great deal of Chemical Chords does the trick perfectly: enjoyable music that goes down easy. Beautiful chord changes abound, your choice in favorites will probably evolve with each listen. It seems that Stereolab half-assed it at vital points where they could have hit it out of the ballpark. However, that being said, it’s a nice little record as is, but for its intentions of being the ultimate indie sugar rush, it comes up short.