The typical Stereolab tune goes something like this: two chords, a tick-a tick-a metronomic beat, a couple of buzzing analog synths and Laetitia Sadier's voice delivering a sugary melody in an often indecipherable mix of French and English. It's an instantly identifiable sound, something few '90s pop bands have succeeded in creating, and even fewer have managed to create intelligently.
Such distinctiveness was hardly assured when Tim Gane (the principal architect of the band's sound) and Sadier formed Stereolab in 1990. The two had performed together briefly in Gane's former band, McCarthy, a British outfit whose trebly guitar numbers were meant to sound like the Byrds but came much closer to sounding like the Housemartins. Though McCarthy's period pieces did little to anticipate Stereolab's music, the band's juxtaposition of light pop and heavy, political lyrics did provide a blueprint for Gane and Sadier to follow.
Stereolab is all about embracing contrast. Even its founders are an odd pair: Gane is a shy record collector, while Sadier is a headstrong free-thinker. Musically, Stereolab's concept has always been to take the most disposable of sounds -- the pop song -- and make it safe for underground tastes. Gane's primary means to that end has been the mixing and matching of disparate (and often obscure) influences. The rhythm guitar shuffle of the Velvet Underground, the repetitive groove of the German proto-ambient band Neu, the harmony-laden hits of the Beach Boys, the naive sensuality of Brazilian pop siren Astrud Gilberto -- all of these have been mentioned as the band's stylistic progenitors. Throw in an affinity for vintage synthesizers, hipster cover art and anachronistic titles (a 1993 EP was called Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music), and it's easy to see why Stereolab has developed a reputation as retro-dilettantes.
Truth be told, the reputation's unwarranted; Gane and Sadier are far from being just poseurs. Still, the misnomer hints at what makes the band so great: its ability to take pieces of the past and assemble them into something thoroughly modern. Whatever the topic, Sadier's lyrics have always possessed an air of dry observation, with little evidence of her underlying emotions. In places, the band's latest CD, Dots and Loops, changes that. When Sadier sings "My dearest friend you can / You can get well / You can heal up," she sounds almost wistful.
One of Dots' finest moments is also one of its most self-consciously derivative. Midway through "Refractions in the Plastic Pulse," the band launches into a dub groove straight out of '70s-era Kingston, Jamaica. About 20 seconds in, out of nowhere, Sadier begins crooning a quiet melody -- a pairing so unexpected it works perfectly. And that, in a nutshell, is Stereolab.
-- Keven McAlester
Stereolab performs Wednesday, December 3, at Westpark Entertainment Center, 5000 Westpark. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $12. The High Llamas open. For info, call 933-4636.
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Cotton Mather -- Austin's premier Beatles emissaries are rolling into Houston this weekend, shaking off a month's worth of road dust and the lingering effects of a major-label bidding war that has yet to be settled. On the auction block is Mather's first-rate new CD Kontiki, which, following a lengthy period of silence by the band, recently arrived on Houston's Copper Records. Apparently, a three-year hiatus has only served to strengthen leader Robert Harrison's command of his Fab Four faculties. By all reports, Harrison has put together the sort of band that can do his mighty melodic experiments justice, and after weeks of touring the Midwest, Cotton ought to be downright refined by the time it hits the stage here. At 10:30 p.m. Friday, November 28, at Rudyard's Pub, 2010 Waugh Drive. Cover is $5. 521-0521. (Hobart Rowland)
Duran Duran -- Ever since singer Simon Le Bon strode into the band's auditions with tight, pink-spotted pants, Duran Duran have symbolized the triumph of style over substance. The model-pretty English group left a distinct impression on the early '80s, and now, a decade later, it's no longer embarrassing to be a Duranie. Mojo Records has just rolled out Tribute Album, on which the cream of today's ska and pop-punk bands muppet their way through interpretations of Duran's greatest hits, while Duran Duran has just released Medazzaland, their most relevant work in years. So go ahead and dust off those Duran posters, dig up those bags of Duran pins, and display them with pride. At 8 p.m., Tuesday, December 2, at Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas Avenue. Tickets are $19.50 and $40. 629-3700. (Stephen Gershon)
Jars of Clay -- Last year, the Nashville foursome became one of the few Christian groups to cross over into the music mainstream when their self-titled debut went platinum and its single, "Flood," broke into the alt-rock radio charts. Though they admit that the prospect of following up that 1995 effort generated anxiety, the band didn't have much to fear, as it turns out. In its first week of release, their new Much Afraid sold 100,000 copies, and its first single, "Crazy Times," has vaulted onto the modern rock charts. The group hasn't forsaken its wispy, acousti-pop sound in the name of growth, though they have augmented it with the occasional electric edge and punchier tempo. God must be proud. At 8 p.m. Wednesday, December 3, at Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas. Tickets are $15 to $25. Plumb opens. 629-3700. (Allen Sculley