U.K.-based Stereolab has always been hard to peg. Purposefully fashioning kitsch out of electronic and traditional instrumentation, the group has occasionally shown flashes of brilliance, and at other times it has passed as merely banal. Frustratingly, Stereolab does not resolve its identity crisis with Sound-Dust, their latest album.
At its outset, Sound-Dust has the markings of sublimity. The opening track, titled “Black Ants in Sound-Dust,” is a synth-driven instrumental piece that opens with a bassline and one-note melody but builds to a crescendo of insistent hums, chirps and honks. The piece has a latent tension that uncontrollably bursts, and for Stereolab, whose works are meticulously arranged, it is a tantalizing development.
The next two tracks deliver on the overture’s promise. “Spacemoth” is a genre-fusion that starts out as a campy rendition of Danny Elfman film score, but halfway it is unexpectedly broken up by a frenetic drum beat, interspersed with wailing horns. Suddenly, these horns lead into a rollicking 1960s R&B finish. “Captain Easychord” is an engaging interplay of pop genres. It starts out with a John Lennonesque piano melody, lapses briefly into slide guitar (á là the Beatles’ “Get Back”), then rides out in electronic mode.
Curiously, the rest of the album is sapped of the energy that made the opening such a pleasure to listen to. “Baby Lulu,” a lounge-act number, slows down the album into a malaise that it never recovers from. Moreover, the flourishes, especially the horns, that peppered the opening reappear constantly throughout the album to the point of tedium. Shifts and breaks become less spontaneous and more calculated. At the halfway point the album starts to sound like thick syrup. The tempo starts to pick up in the last quarter, but it is too little, too late. Unfortunately, Laetitia Sadier’s characteristic vocal monotone and dense lyrics do not dispel Sound-Dust’s narcotic effect. After listening to Sound-Dust, you will wonder how an intro, and group, with such potential could have resulted in this mediocre recording.
—William K. Lee
Preston School of Industry