Metro, May 10

By Peter Margasak

Through all of Stereolab’s ambitious, much ballyhooed recombinant music making–whether using the clipped rhythms of the 70s German band Neu or borrowing from breezy Brazilian pop–their essence comes down to the way guitarist Tim Gane wags his head back and forth when they play. All of the band’s music can be reduced to a stunning hypnotic groove.

Stereolab are often described as Marxist eccentrics juxtaposing Krautrock with slinky exotica, but their recent performance at Metro proved that they’re both a whole lot more and a bit less. Though they experimented more than they have in any of their other recent appearances (including some terrific gigs last summer while they were in town recording their new Emperor Tomato Ketchup), Gane remained a human metronome–even on the rhythmically complex “Percolator,” which used an off-kilter time signature that wouldn’t be out of place on a Dave Brubeck record. Drummer Andy Ramsay and new bassist Richard Harrison built a foundation through swirling, trance-inducing repetition. The guitar mantras made famous by the Velvet Underground, and like the one in Stereolab’s “Lo Boob Oscillator,” were inventively appropriated and played off the seemingly incongruous ingredients that comprised the music’s rich melodic scheme. Even through the song’s droning coda–filled with rippling guitar textures and shimmery, undulating Farfisa and synthesizers–that same sturdy pulse endured.

But what makes Stereolab’s music so extraordinary is the way they weave together so many disparate elements. For them the groove is a skeleton over which they craft their immaculate melodic shapes. Though their music melds together countless genres of the past, the arrangements are free of irony. (The closest Stereolab got to it at Metro was pairing high-tech laser machines with tacky reflective plastic balls haphazardly hung in front of a black backdrop.) The band’s infatuation with easy-listening pioneers of the 50s like Esquivel and Martin Denny is not ironic. Gane has repeatedly asserted his admiration for their inventive arrangements and artful appropriations of bizarre, theoretically nonmusical sounds. Reflecting this aesthetic, the band’s new album incorporates gurgling, archaic synthesizer sounds into a lush sonic mosaic of contrapuntal harmonies. Past member and frequent collaborator Sean O’Hagan–now leading the band High Llamas–adds to the mix his sumptuous string arrangements.

The dreamy melodies sung by the bilingual Laetitia Sadier–usually in gorgeous interlocking patterns with Mary Hansen–are clearly drawn from the French chanson, her native country’s cabaret style. Driven by an insistent 60s organ riff, the surging “Motocaster Scalatron” showed how the unlikely marriage of such delicate melodicism and visceral rock rhythms succeeds with this band. The strange combination of numbed-out funk, queasy synthesizer bleeps, and ethereal sing-song vocal patterns on “Metronomic Underground” achieved a similar effect. The gently loping “Ping Pong” accentuated the tune’s bossa nova element while highlighting its connection with chanson. Though one can appreciate these unusual juxtapositions, recognizing their novelty isn’t necessary to enjoy the music. It’s the end result that resonates: amazingly lush pop that’s rhythmically complex.

Sadier’s simplistic politically geared lyrics usually seem like gibberish, but the band’s wan lyrical content is overcome by their musical brilliance. While Gane fixated on the groove, the music’s outer layer provided riches for the pop-history aficionado. The band’s increased energy and growing inclination to experiment live–evidenced in their throbbing textural investigations that ranged from near-industrial harshness to lush chill-out swirls–both complemented their pop perfection and showed a commitment to diversity. Few bands can reconcile such blatant pop urges with experimental impulses–and with Stereolab you weren’t even aware of those disparate elements. You just noticed Tim Gane lost in the groove.