If your career shows no sign of progression over time, is that necessarily a bad thing? If you’re in full-time employment, your boss will answer with a definite, “yes”, and haul you in for a review before you can say, “rhetorical question”. But in music, it’s not quite that black and white. For example, Status Quo have been writing the same song since 1967 and are regularly scoffed at by critics, but it’s apparently completely fine for AC/DC to have had the exact same shtick since they appeared on the scene.
Which brings us to Stereolab, the cult act who are praised by journalists and adored by hardcore fans. They’ve only got one trick too, but perhaps they’re immune to biting criticism because it’s a damn good trick, and one that no-one else seems capable of replicating. Between 1990 and 2009, Stereolab combined lounge pop, Krautrock, analogue electronica and avant-garde to create a sound quite unlike that of any other band. Like the best artists, they existed on the periphery in their own private world, penetrable only to those prepared to invest the necessary time. Their songs lasted anything from one minute to ten, were often built up carefully layer by layer, and their albums had brilliantly bonkers titles like Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements and, career-highlight, Emperor Tomato Ketchup.
Throughout much of Stereolab’s life, singer Laetitia Sadier has been part of side-project group, Monade, whose most recent album, Monstre Cosmic, was a superb exercise in lilting, restrained pop. Sadier has broken free from the shadow of both groups in releasing The Trip, her first solo album.
For someone so associated with formulaic music and repetition, The Trip was never going to be surprising, but it’s still hard not to see it as a let down. Say what you like about Stereolab, but there was always a playfulness and European glamour to their music which is sadly lacking here. What Sadier has left us with, is effectively an inferior version of a Monade record.
The Trip opens with the emotionally distant and hollow One Million Year Trip: a song built around a simple, grating bassline, and an odd selection to begin any record. The opening track is so important for any album, and The Trip immediately gets off on the wrong foot. It’s true the album vastly improves after the dull and metallic One Million Year Trip, but it’s difficult not to feel like the bulk of the damage has already been done.
Perhaps it’s ok to re-hash the same ideas when there’s some wit, panache or passion behind it, but Sadier seems genuinely disinterested throughout most of the record. Her vocals have always sailed dangerously close to the line that separates Gallic insouciance and boredom, but here she plants herself firmly the wrong side of that line. Dream-pop is often difficult to get excited about, but The Trip is ultimately unmemorable, bereft of any fills or flourishes as a respite.
There are glimmers of hope, however. Sadier’s cover of By The Sea is probably the only thing on show here to hold a candle to the glory days of The ‘Lab with its urgency, purpose and motorik beat. Statues Can Bend and Another Monster are all well and good, but sound passive, unfinished and in desperate need of another couple of elements to get going.
If you want to hear this sort of thing done properly, you’ll find happiness in the more sedate moments of the peerless Saint Etienne, but there’s little to recommend The Trip. It’s not much more than a Christmas bauble: shiny and polished on the surface, but with little of substance on the inside. The Trip finishes with a woeful cover of Gershwin’s Summertime, the unpalatable icing on the inedible cake that is this particularly disappointing record.