, October 28th, 2010 13:58
Stereolab probably did the right thing when they decided to go on an indefinite hiatus last year. A not entirely undeserved reputation for repeating themselves from one album to the next was beginning to obscure just how ground-breaking and unique they'd remained throughout the 90s. Accessible yet obscure, melodic and ferocious when they wanted to be, they crafted a singular aesthetic that defined, yet remained somehow apart from, what was soon termed post-rock. Not content to remain in the refined company of the likes of Tortoise and La Bradford (both of whom released records on the Lab's own Duophonic label), Stereolab staked a place on the main dancefloor as the clumsy beer-spills of grunge and Britpop, big beat and landfill indie lurched drunkenly around them, somehow leaving them aloof and untouched, moving to their own reference points without bothering to wait for the rest of the world to catch up.
Then a new century dawned, and the Krautrock, modern jazz, primal garage, early electronica, soft psych obscurities, library music, French film scores and avant-garde experiments that Stereolab had been drawing on all along finally began filtering through to a mass audience. Rather than give the band credit for re-discovering these forgotten sounds first, the churls attempted to save face by knocking them for endlessly recycling the same influences, while praising hastily-cobbled together new outfits doing exactly the same thing, but too late in the day and without a fraction of the poise or pleasure. Frankly, we took Stereolab for granted. And I suspect it will take several years of absence before they are fully, rightly recognised for the body of work they created.
But while we wait for that day to come, here is the first solo album from Stereolab's most recognisable voice, Laetitia Sadier. On first listening, it seems a somewhat slight affair; just 34 minutes long, with three of the album's 12 tracks brief instrumental interludes, each less than 30 seconds in duration. The basic ingredients and musical influences too, are much the same as on any Stereolab record, and of course Laetitia's voice is instantly recognisable- wistfully longing, as though always somehow standing on tiptoe, reaching for the prize at the back of the high shelf yet ready to fall back into unbothered insouciance the moment anyone walks in the door. Further immersion, however, reveal this to be no mere afterthought or addendum to the Stereolab catalogue: it's a window opened rather than a door closed, the promise of a fresh beginning with hair let down and all unnecessary clutter swept away.
Odd then, that it should be a record about death. But The Trip is an album given impetus and subject matter by the tragic suicide of Laetitia's younger sister Noelle. It's both a personal homage and an attempt to make sense of a seemingly senseless act, a coming to terms with loss and separation. The opening track, 'One Million Year Trip,' is a metallic, two-chord groove, with Laetitia's half-spoken but melodic vocal a kind of hypnotic chant, rising and falling over the rhythm. "She went on a million year trip and left everything behind," she sings, "Her skin, her hair- she has a long way to travel, so I will open my heart and let the pain run along."
The music is as stripped-down and bare as the lyrics, fitting for a suite of songs Laetitia originally wrote and performed with just voice and guitar, but here bolstered by a full band treatment that still allows them the space to breathe, and never smothers their essential child-like naivety- if that's not too paradoxical a description of songs so aware of life's bitterest experiences. Maybe unmannered honesty is a better phrase; grief painfully deconstructed, without recourse to the language and comforts of religion, therapy or cliché. There's certainly none of the self-conscious Marxist theory and post-modern jargon that one expected from Stereolab, but neither is this the wilful refusal to grow up displayed by so many contemporary bands that borrow from the same post-rock pool of Kraut, electronica and exotica. Being an intelligent, well-educated adult needn't mean hiding behind your textbooks, and Laetitia's lyrics are thoughtful but unfiltered, intelligent without being "clever." Similarly, Laetitia and her producers have resisted the temptation to process and filter every sound, to cut and paste and layer just because they can. Each song goes directly about its business, unhurried, purposeful, and perfectly constructed.
The languorous, melodic bass and glockenspiel accompaniment of 'Fluid Sand' cushions a personal meditation on loss and transformation that is painfully raw, despite its hard-won optimism. 'Natural Child' again recalls Noelle- "the natural child with strong legs and shoulders, was made to carry a load way too heavy" -over Julien Gasc's rolling piano, sun-flecked jazzy rhythms and minor seventh chords. The spare, ghostly ballad 'Statues Can Bend' is almost like hearing a warmer, French Nico, Sadier's flattened notes reaching between heavy raindrops of pulsing piano.
Ironically, the most Stereolab-like moments are the covers: a version of Wendy and Bonnie's 'By the Sea,' with guitars jangling on a single chord over a driving krautrock beat and dry, popping bass, though even this has a brash freshness alien to her previous band's tightly-structured, cool-blue musical exercises. Les Rita Mitsouko's 'Un Soir, Un Chien' is actual French Disko, breathy and bobbing, like what might have happened if Gainsbourg and Birkin had got together with Chic to make a vocal answer record to Popcorn's 'Hot Butter.' Most daring of all, perhaps, is a fragmentary reading of the Gershwin standard 'Summertime,' taken entirely neat but for the background whir of a vintage analogue synth that has only just got its valves warmed up for action as the song fades.
Raw emotional honesty is not solely the preserve of grizzled troubadours with acoustic guitars, agonised rockers or lank-haired, barefoot girls recounting truisms with trembling lips. Those with more sophisticated tastes, more ambiguous moods, and better dress sense, are also capable of feeling and expressing life's pain. This quiet, brittle record is just one example.