In the '90s, Stereolab albums were charming junkshops selling rock history's neglected treasures, mainly '60s French pop and '70s Krautrock. This decade, on one chirpy release after another, the London-based group's extreme stylistic conservatism has been laid bare, its retro-rock demoted from "ironic" to merely "vintage." And just like a quirky corner store stuffily rebranded as "An Authoritative Dealer of Mid-Century Modern Furniture," Stereolab long ago streamlined its wares, meanwhile losing a sense of humor (never mind adventure) for what the band was selling.
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Chemical Chords, the group's first release on 4AD, is a straightforward pop album. Stereolab's style is more Ronettes than Rihanna, but the album's 14 tracks clock in at a little over 40 minutes, respecting the needs of the average iPod-toting office temp. On the surf-rock–infused "Three Women," we get that increasingly rare treat for a Stereolab song—a bona fide surprise. It comes in the chorus when icy lead singer Laetitia Sadier inflects her voice, and the effect is seismic: For the first time since the untimely death of second vocalist Mary Hansen in 2001, a Stereolab tune isn't crowded out by founding guitarist Tim Gane's baroque pop arrangement. But, as has been the story with the last several Stereolab albums, the surrounding 13 tracks are not so much rock-snob cool as they are merely tepid. This is exemplified by "The Ecstatic Static," which bobs along to Chemical Chords' default beat, borrowed from the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." For longtime fans of the group, this is nothing new. But even the genuine thrill of "Three Women" makes it hard to forgive the 13 variations of "Frère Jacques" surrounding this album's sole keeper.