Stylistic mutation has been the tonic for old, tired rock-'n'-roll horses since the Beatles fiddled with sitars and Deep Purple jammed with a symphony orchestra. For the past six years the London-based collective Stereolab has embraced diverse influences and tinkered with musical paradoxes with the wide-eyed wonder of a kid in front of a chemistry set. On paper, all the contradictory ideas seem too coldly intellectual to work: kraut-rock and sunny pop melodies thrown in a blender with Velvet Underground-style two-riff repetition, accompanied by all sorts of synthesizer noises. On top of that, French singer Laetitia Sadier delivers sugary harmonies, deadpan readings of Marxist/situationist analyses, and heady philosophical manifestos. Cerebral stuff--to be admired rather than loved on first listen--yet this intriguing combination has a bewitching appeal and a seductive physicality; the grooves are deep and captivating, the melodies sublimely poppy. Its peculiar futuristic aesthetics are warm and exhilarating.
Emperor Tomato Ketchup--Stereolab's latest and best CD--is one of those rare works that makes you wonder what its creators will be capable of next. The album is all about suggestion, hinting that every idea is worth exploring, any sound can be incorporated, and genre cross-pollination is not a taboo but a necessity. The group's kaleidoscopic world is seamless, engaging, and has everything to do with charisma and lack of contrivance. You can recognize some of the bits and pieces that go into the Stereolab mosaic, but the whole is uniquely the group's own.
Stereolab opens up new plateaus of (subtle) funkiness with "Metronomic Underground," as well as with the strangely brewing "Percolator" with its bubbling bass line. "Les Yper-Sound" is French '60s flower pop with the band Can providing the backbeat, whereas "OLV26" finds the members of Stereolab riding with the top down along Kraftwerk's Autobahn. The eerie, sentimental "Monstre Sacre" sees them dipping into a deep emotional well, while the ending "Anonymous Collective" is a somber electronic mantra, Sadier repeating the phrase "You and me are molded by things well beyond our acknowledgment"--pardon her English.
After having traveled so many unmapped pop territories, it seems that Stereolab's next logical destination will be the bright side of the moon.
Stereolab plays Trees Friday, November 1.