It’s jarring to stumble upon “Pop Molecule (Molecular Pop 1)” in the midst of Stereolab’s 11th album; for a band otherwise so devoted these days to kicking out the candy-coated jams—trying to prove that all sorts of retro, exotic adult pop fits in just fine with modern indie rock—it’s a sudden reminder that noise, fuzz, and repetition used to play a much larger role in their work. It’s frustrating that their old tendencies are kept to a brief instrumental on Chemical Chords, since if they’d just gifted it with a properly propulsive vocal, they would have finally given us a song to stack next to “The Noise of Carpet” in their pantheon.
But that’s the only spot where the band’s newfound brevity goes unappreciated: At long last, they’ve mastered the art of portion control, cutting tracks off early instead of letting them stretch on into irrelevance. Stereolab are focusing on trying to make pop (well, a kind of pop) more explicitly and relentlessly than ever before, and they mostly succeed: While you can certainly hold it against Chemical Chords that it’s stuck permanently in “jaunty” mode, the approach holds up for 44 minutes, and on a high point like “Daisy Click Clack,” suddenly it’s obvious why 2001’s half-baked Sound-Dust was so unsatisfying. Stereolab are now practiced enough to be exemplars of a sound they’ve been reaching for since the early days; instead of being skilled mimics, they are, for better or worse, the real thing when it comes to “space-age bachelor-pad music.”They’re unlikely to scale the heights of an Emperor Tomato Ketchup again, but the new-model Stereolab, which looks toward the sounds of Love, the Left Banke, and Motown, are actually pretty awesome. Diehards will probably resent their new predictability and homogeneity, but the group’s mature phase is capable of generating one hell of a pop album, even if the biggest concession to the outside world is the way the piano loop on album highlight “Three Women” puts one in mind of the more summery, restrained jams kicked out by the Go! Team. There are plenty of tricks out there easier to pull off than making an album this smoothly ingratiating and satisfying—and even if it was early Stereolab’s imperfections that made them such a great band, it’s awfully hard to begrudge them settling into their role as just an awfully good one.
Stereolab play the Fillmore at Irving Plaza October 2-4