Since its 1991 debut, Stereolab has created ingeniously futuristic pop music, full of bleeps and bloops, exotic rhythms and stylishly cooed vocals. Ten years later, the future is now, but tastes still haven't quite caught up to Stereolab's tantalizing experiments. Yet there is a perfectly chronological explanation for the band's apparent failure to foresee the direction music would take a decade on: The band was actually looking the other way.
Stereolab may pretend to offer music for the future, so-called "Space Age Batchelor Pad Music," but the group's vision actually comes secondhand. Rather than devise utterly novel soundscapes, Stereolab pilfers shamelessly from the past, picking its obscure sources with hipster savvy, like a seasoned thrift store shopper. But the group's compulsive sound-theft never made much of a difference. Years before everyone else caught on, Stereolab was referencing the 1970s German bands Can and Neu!, the Mexican lounge music master Esquivel and the decidedly unhip Burt Bacharach. Ironically, the group's blatant borrowing made it a paragon of cool originality. After all, first to steal is still first.
That said, the band seems to have shifted direction once again with "Sound-Dust," its eighth full-length album. The disc follows the dull mouthful "Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night," which tried to mimic the amorphous structure of free jazz yet felt exceedingly flat: Stereolab doesn't swing that way. Though "Sound-Dust" once again enlists the creative Chicago team of producer John McEntire (Tortoise, Sea and Cake) and arranger Jim O'Rourke (Sonic Youth, Wilco), the emphasis this time sounds less on unfocused experimentation and more on melody.
If there's one thing that unites these dozen unpredictable tracks, it's an unflagging tunefulness. "Spacemoth" begins as another lounge exercise but ends with what could be Stereolab's most conventional melody to date. After a chamber orchestra introduction, "Double Rocker" returns the group to danceable funk, with surprisingly successful results. "Captain EasyChord" even takes several unexpected detours into country-western before ultimately ending up as an ultra-catchy cha-cha.
Singer Laetitia Sadier, who along with partner Tim Gane has remained the cold heart of Stereolab, offers several of her trademark wordless vocals, neatly arranged ba-bas and la-las that alternate with French lyrics. In fact, never has it been harder to discern just what she is singing, but rarely has her gibberish sounded so pleasant.
Part of the disc's appeal is the ingratiating instrumentation, ranging from baroque strings to antique synthesizers to soulful horn blasts. While Stereolab's arrangements sometimes lean toward overcluttered, here they perfectly suit the light songs, easily the group's most accessible since 1996's high-water mark, "Emperor Tomato Ketchup."
For those keeping track, "Sound-Dust" is still full of references to other musicians, perhaps most notably Polish jazz artist Krzysztof Komeda (director Roman Polanski's composer of choice). More important, the disc is full of the kind of music expected from Stereolab, a breezy and welcome return to form for the British band. Even if the group fails to offer anything new, it never fails to sound renewed, the relaxed retro-futuristic grooves ever ready for airport lounges around the world to catch up.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8151.)