As their name indicates, what Stereolab do is closer to science than art, and one of the hallmarks of science is that through trial and error you improve on yesterday’s work. At this point, Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadler, the couple at the creative center of the group, have almost completely abandoned their pet Marxist themes and occasional forays into noise for the sake of noise. What’s left is pure Euro-pop performed on analog electronic instruments and then processed to produce a predetermined result.
With Sean O’Hagan having replaced Jim O’Rourke as the band’s resident arranger some time ago, the strings and horns are less experimental, more recognizably pop in ways that lovers of pre-1980s Top 40 radio will appreciate. Thanks to those horns, the first single, “Three Women,” sounds too much like Motown to qualify as lounge music, but Sadler’s blase French vocals will keep the bodies secure in their chairs. The sophisticated, open-ended melodic ideas carried by Sadler and a string section on the title cut start off pretty and enticing — but as they never resolve, the song seems to end before it even begins.
Stereolab have basically developed a perfect formula for the extended pop song, one that requires on the part of its makers Thomas Edison’s proverbial 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. “Chemical Chords” is a fun album, but no one is sweating on my side of the speakers.