Heavenly Van Stereolab

Stereolab with Richard Swift and Monade at the Showbox, Seattle | 17 October 2008

Around the time of Dots and Loops I was in the car driving on the freeway from Morgantown, West Virginia to Washington, DC.  For the drive, I had the new Stereolab single,  Fluoresences playing in the car. The last song on that EP is Soop Groove #1 which is one of Stereolab’s longer grooving songs like in the realm of Metronomic Underground or Jenny Ondioline. As I remember, it was kind of foggy going through the mountains when Soop Groove came on with its marching rhythm, followed by Tim Gane’s guitar and then the Sean O’Hagen’s short jazz-like bursts of horns. The entire 13 minute song builds on  a building repetitive groove that put me into some kind of trance. It was like some kind of white noise where your eyes flip to the back of your head and you’re out.  Somehow I continued to drive unconsiously following the white line with Stereolab guiding me down the road.   My favorite Stereolab music is where they develop and establish a hypnotic repetition that just keeps on seeming to build but never quite comes to a nadir. I came out of the trance somewhere near the end of the song that day, but I’d traveled 20 odd miles and couldn’t remember a single one of them because of the hypnosis that Stereolab had put me in.

Last night at the Showbox the band only entered into a couple of those trance inducing songs, but both times it was more than worth the price of a $20 ticket or any drugs you might have scored.  They did it once midway through their set with Lo Boob Oscilator and then again on the final song of the night Stomach Worm. On both songs the band put it into hyperdrive with Tim Gane at the back of the stage just bobbing his head back and forth lightly strumming his guitar and everyone else in the band with heads down on their instrument and locking into a groove.

For the other songs in the set, which was the majority, the band kept it short and sweet. Focusing a lot on Chemical Chords, their new album where most of the songs are short concise pop songs. I’ve since come around a little to Chemical Chords since kind of deriding it a few months ago. It is a study in catchy pop songs and doesn’t diverge into longer dirge and grooving songs that have been de rigeur of the past.  The band have come up with a handful of their best catchy pop numbers for the new album of which they’ve only teased fans with on previous albums. If you’re a fan of the shorter and to the point pop songs like Ping Pong, Percolator, John Cage Bubblegum, French Disco and Miss Modular then this album and last night’s show are right up your alley.

Laetitia Sadier looked positively radiant singing, doing her cute little dancing, shyly smiling each time some guy yelled something in French to her, and knowing her own discography (Before Lo Boob Oscilator she mentioned that the song originally appeared on Sub Pop single).  On the surface Stereolab may seem innocuous, with their easy lounge influenced sound and Saedier’s cooing and sometime sing-songy delivery.  But many of Sadier’s songs have a serious leftist bent to to them, and the band can seriously stretch out and rock  as was in full effect on Lo Boob and Stomach Worm.

My only complaints about last night’s show were that Sean O’Hagen’s brass and string arrangements were missed, especially from the Chemical Chords songs where they seem so integral. My second complaint isn’t really a complaint, it’s just that I really missed Mary Hansen’s backing vocals. Hansen was killed back in 2002, being run over by a truck while on a bicycle in London. Hansen with here backing vocals always gave the words a more forceful presence.  Last night Sadier’s vocals didn’t seem as powerful and prominent as when I’d seen them previously when Hansen was still alive.  Part of this perception may have had to do with me standing too close to the stage where vocals are always less prominent in the overall sound.

Minor complaints aside, Stereolab seem to still be at the top of their game, pushing the proverbial envelope with their lengthy jams, but also recognizing that they are a terrific singles band and highlighting many of those three minute pop masterpieces last night was a delightful way to experience this band who have been touring and putting out records  for 17 years.

mp3: Stereolab – Soop Groove #1 (buy it on CD)

I walked in for the last chords of Monade, which is Laetitia’s other band, so I can’t really say much about them.  I did get to see Richard Swift and his band and he did not disappoint.  Dressed Up For the Letdown was one of my favorites albums of last year,and though his latest album, Richard Swift as Onasis is a bit harder to get your head around, it”s certainly not a letdown.  Swift writes classic pop songs in a Randy Newman and Harry Nilson style, and his band is more than up to the task of playing them.  Swift was in fine form switching between playing guitar and keyboard.  The highlight of his set was the final song Lady Luck (from Ground Trouble Jaw which you can download for free) where he set aside his guitar and piano and sang in a soulful un-ironic falsetto sounding a bit like Prince.  It was pretty damn great and made me kick myself for not going to see him the last time he was in town at Chop Suey.

There are more photos and the set list over at my flickr.  There are also a few more Stereolab dates for the US, all with Richard Swift opening.
10/19: Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver
10/21: Fillmore, San Francisco
10/23: Henry Fonda Theater, LA
10/24: Belly Up, San Diego

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