At times, Stereolab's music seems so unchanging that it feels more like it was generated by a laser-guided, lounge pop-meets-Krautrock machine than an actual "groop," but the small tweaks they make to their master plan on each album end up making a big impact. On Chemical Chords, Stereolab's 4AD debut, they take a much more pop-focused approach than their immediately previous work — which is saying something, since neither Fab Four Suture nor Margerine Eclipse were among their more experimental moments in the first place. Actually, the shortness and directness of these songs could be seen as a bigger experiment for the band than their frequent lockgrooves and hypnotic passages; with those trimmed, Chemical Chords presents a version of Stereolab's sound that is just as vivid as their earlier output, but fizzing with immediacy and urgency. "Neon Beanbag" jumps in hooks first, opening the album with a surprisingly swift rhythm and Laetitia Sadier's more familiar, bopping backing vocals. "One Finger Symphony"'s animated brass, guitars, and percussion suggest gears rotating and levers lifting and falling in playful but somewhat sinister fashion; "Daisy Click Clack" swishes in on brisk drums and a quaint melody that could be borrowed from a piano rag. Despite its name, Chemical Chords actually features some of Stereolab's most organic-sounding music in some time, downplaying their arsenal of analog synths in favor of live instrumentation — the burbling synths on "Self Portrait with Electric Brain" support the song's snazzy brass and strings rather than dominating them. Likewise, Stereolab's version of "going pop" means looking beyond what "pop" means in the moment. A strong '60s feel permeates much of the album, but the way the band reconfigures these sounds prevents it from sounding archaic. "Three Women"'s rock-solid bass and tambourine shout out to Motown's heyday, but its buzzing organs and bongos feel like they were channeled from a long-lost exotic novelty album. "Cellulose Sunshine"'s gorgeous lysergic chamber pop could be a throwback, if it weren't so modishly sleek, and "Pop Molecule"'s massive synths and big, backward drums offer a futuristic take on acid rock. The band also revisits its own pop heyday on "Valley Hi!" and "Nous Vous Demandons Pardons," boasting the clever counterpoint and fuzzy Moogs of the Mars Audiac Quintet era. Chemical Chords manages to be even more concisely charming than that album, sacrificing little of Stereolab's distinctive sound for its immediacy. -AMG
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