Listen to this track by Anglo-Gallic drone-rock analogue synthesists with a flair for retro-pop texture Stereolab. It’s “Three Women” as taken from their 2008 debut record on the 4AD label, Chemical Chords. The record hooked into principles Tim Gane’s and Laetitia Sadier’s interest in pop music of all kinds, including ’60s soul-pop, as it dovetails with krautrock, The Velvets, lounge music, and various retro-futurist sources.
And apart from the aforementioned analogue synth textures and their patented detached melodicism, In this song, we get to hear something of the band’s playful side. Yet, in their way, they’ve always been playful, taking discarded textures and set pieces from time’s past, and blending them together just to see what happens. An artistic environment in the ’90s when they debuted helped to encourage this kind of approach. That was a decade when sonic materials hitherto looked upon as being uncool seemed to be just old enough to be new again. By the 21st century, this approach is de rigeur across the board where experimental pop and indie music in general goes.
So, some things have stayed the same. But, what has changed?
Well, one thing on this tune that represents something of a departure is the richer palette of colours; horns, mallet percussion, celesta, organ, and tambourine add to the general warmth of the arrangement. Stereolab to me have always seemed to emphasize their appealing sense of detachment, which gives them a unique appeal of course. This track is as close as I’ve ever heard them get to party music. This is pretty joyous. And if it sounds a bit ’60s where dance party vibes are concerned, then maybe you’ll be able to hear not just a little trace of musical DNA sourced from The Casualeers 1967 song “Dance Dance Dance”, surely a similarly vibed anthem to ebulliently kicking out the jams, although with a Gallic shrug and lots of Sartre-esque existential angst lyrically speaking thrown in there along with it in the case of “Three Women”.
The danger of being an experimental pop outfit is that those two poles are constantly seeking dominance. The trick is to keep them in balance. One of the most important things about this tune and the record off of which it comes is that the band has proven that they could scale their sound to the times, expand upon it, and still remain true to themselves.
Stereolab have been deliberately retro while still retaining a reputation for being on the cutting edge at the same time since they began. For me, that’s another level of irony where they’re concerned. Because this band has sounded as if they were making 21st century music all along, even if they were doing it in the style of a ’60s-to-’90s band playing their idea of what the 21st century would sound like.
Maybe the real point here is that the term “retro” itself has always been a part of a false dichotomy, since it assumes a linear progression between one set of sounds and another. By the 21st century, everything is new so long as there is someone new discovering it. And in that sense, nothing really gets old either. It’s simply redefined.
Stereolab are currently on hiatus at the time of this writing. But for more information about them beyond that, check out their official site.
And if you’re looking for some new Stereolab-related music, check out Laetitia Sadier’s new solo record, Something Shines.