When I started listening to Everything But the Girl in high school they were more pop lite than breakbeat, and I was more theater geek than writer geek. I sensed a pour-it-all-out approach to emotion in their music, and Tracey Thorn’s vocal range was the same as mine, which enabled me to absorb every nuance. My introduction to Stereolab came years later, surreptitiously, through my sister. In an attempt to get me to like them, she’d insert the most melodic numbers from Emperor Tomato Ketchup onto mix tapes. She succeeded, with a few caveats—I grew weary of the UFO noises and artful repetition. But though both bands have increasingly combined melodic elements of pop with the flourishes afforded by electronic music, and though lately they’re both downplaying guitars, their new releases take opposite approaches. Where EBTG rely on Thorn’s voice and tearjerker lyrics for emotional engagement, Stereolab’s incessant noodling drowns vocals into detachment. These days, EBTG make me want to dance all night; Stereolab make me want to sit down and smoke a cigarette.
Everything But the Girl’s embrace of the electronic has been gradual, starting with 1994’s half-jazzy Amplified Heart. “Missing,” that album’s huge hit (their biggest ever), laced a thin acoustic guitar line over a simple, straightforward drumbeat. The song’s message was vintage EBTG, equal parts cheese and poignance: “And I miss you/Like the deserts miss the rain.” A couple of years later, Walking Wounded upped the synthetic-to-organic ratio to 75:25, concentrating on drum’n’bass. Mixmaster Ben Watt has spent the past few years DJing in the London club Lazy Dog and collaborating with Beth Orton and D.C.’s Deep Dish. As a result, the duo’s sound has been emancipated and rejuvenated by chugging, shaking house beats, and has moved their fans from the couch to clubs. Temperamental‘s first track, “Five Fathoms,” already hit number one on the Billboard dance charts; I even heard it in the Gap last week. Programmed drumroll spasms that started out on Walking Wounded as punctuation marks accenting empty spaces between Thorn’s words now make up the whole damned sentence.
Still, the narrative arc and melodic indulgences have not been sacrificed. I can totally see Madonna endorsing Temperamental—it’s just that pop. Backed by confident beats and swathed in lush synthesizers, “Lullaby of Club land” crystallizes the alienation underlying the nine mostly up-tempo tracks: “I saw you at the bar/Don’t know your name or who you are/It’s packed till 2 a.m./I’ve got no coat/Are you on your own?” After-hours endeavors may prove fruitless, but Thorn’s self-assurance just might carry her through. Temperamental is aptly titled—it can feel like a packed, shimmying disco one minute and an empty, bleak street the next.
But if Temperamental leads with a disclosing heart, Stereolab’s latest, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, leads with a cool, level head. Cobra‘s high points are hodgepodge cobblings from the band’s usual suspects: ’60s French pop, Bacharach, krautrock. Adept at treating your stereo like the lab it should be, these transcontinental trance addicts have given us another album featuring a Garanimals color scheme, an impossibly long title, bars of music that repeat ad infinitum, and lyrics that might make you wish you understood French.
Stereolab have been putting genres in the blender for a while now, but they’ve become so comfy in their niche that it borders on cliché. (The band shares members with other like-minded freethinkers—Tortoise and the High Llamas.) Vague references to society and choice figure as standby motifs, and the horn-tinged, bass-driven “The Free Design” attempts an existential query: “Our earthly design/Can we be so detached/What crushes our desire not to be trapped?” Vocalist Laetitia Sadier slides the words over the music, forcing the phrasing, and somehow, as usual, it works. If something is brewing in ridiculous lyrics like these, it’s obscured by cryptic references and foreign language. That’s okay, though—you don’t come to Stereolab expecting clarity; they’re impressionist, not realist. What’s lamentable on the new album is that syncopated, catchy tracks are so few. Where’s the propelling, percussively strong 5/4 of 1997’s “Rainbo Conversation”? Or the straight-ahead guitar pop of 1994’s “Wow and Flutter”? These mildly enjoyable 75 minutes are basically an amalgam of past tunes, with no surprises suggesting innovation.
Sad, because clinging to what’s safe runs counter to Stereolab’s whole shtick—the band’s music is packed with possibilities. They could go avant-jazz, for example; at least it’d be progress. The rudiments are there—freely winding detours, ample horn section, a gamut of key boards from tack piano to Hammond organ to Moog. Everything But the Girl is like the boy friend who risks talking about his feelings to move the relationship forward; Stereolab is the guy you wish would quit navel-gazing and let out what’s bugging him. For me, forward motion usually works better than endless circling.