Lætitia Sadier and Tim Gane probably didn’t set out to change the landscape of popular music forever, but that’s essentially what happened. The duo responsible for Stereolab didn’t simply inspire the creation of the term “post-rock,” they legitimately paved the way for every band that has since suffered this categorization. They revitalized krautrock for subsequent generations. They pioneered the merging of electronic music and rock. They may have even made the world safe for trip-hop.
What has always separated Stereolab from the vast and nebulous post-rock pack are lyrics and melody, talents which rarely even pop up in this genre. Fans at Turner Hall on Friday night were treated not just to pulsing motorik rhythms and noisy guitar assaults, but also to infectious melodies and pointed political messages. Despite 10 years of inactivity and an even longer separation from any semblance of relevance in contemporary music culture, the urgency of the band’s music remained undiminished.
The entire Deer District and adjacent sections of downtown were crawling with music fans, most flocking to the Fiserv Forum; Turner Hall, however, boasted a sellout (but not over-sold) crowd of its own. Stereolab’s target audience are busy people dangerously close to aging out of concert-going stamina; they don’t get out much any more, and they’d survived another long, tiring work week, and here were lots of their friends that they never get to see, all eager to unwind and catch up. Can we really blame them for being excessively sociable during Bitchin Bajas’ opening set?
Yes. Yes, we can. With the balcony open, the hum of conversation swarmed and echoed throughout the cavernous ballroom, a sonic entity in its own right, yet the Chicago synth/etc. trio almost seemed to play with the chatter, and its dynamic, pulsing jams rose into roars that occasionally managed to even drown out the audience, who were at least by and large vocally appreciative of the music.
Stereolab emerged to an immediately more attentive crowd. “Bon soir, Milwaukee. A first!” said Sadier, fronting a five-piece ensemble that also included longtime drummer Andy Ramsay. Through opener “Anamorphose” and the ensuing four or five songs, Gane’s guitar tones and the overall sound of the band was nostalgic almost to the point of anachronism; “post-new-wave” may have been a more accurate descriptor of Stereolab’s more accessible material, and the group’s sunny, upbeat grooves and chamber-pop sensibilities belied the biting social commentary of songs like “Ping Pong” and “Infinity Girl.”
The musical intensity didn’t reach a peak until “Lo Boob Oscillator;” the extended coda finally brought the element of raw noise that has characterized the group’s more experimental work and has ultimately launched a thousand Mogwai clones. “Miss Modular” brought to mind fantasies of a Stereolab tour with a horn section, leading into a long stretch of heavy-hitters that finally got the stationary crowd moving. “Percolator” and “Metronomic Underground,” somewhat shockingly, were the only two tracks from the band’s seminal 1996 album Emperor Tomato Ketchup, garnering by far the most enthusiastic reaction from the crowd.
Set closer “French Disko” was a perfect, concise representation of everything this band stands for, though. The clanging guitars and relentless drumming, about double the speed of the studio recording, were the night’s closest approximation of rock; the song’s lyrics have only become more relevant since 1993. “Though this world’s essentially an absurd place to be living in / It doesn’t call for total withdrawal,” Sadier chanted. “As acts of rebellious solidarity / Can bring sense in this world / La Resistance!”
It’s hard to say whether these sentiments touched anyone in the crowd who didn’t already know the words; the sound was terrific, yet still not particularly suited to vocal clarity. Any uninitiated attendees who were moved by the music would be well advised to dig deeper into Sadier’s lyrics for a fuller appreciation of Stereolab. The sprawling, explosive finale of “Jenny Ondioline” is a song that dares to espouse a fine line between cynicism and hope, but you could just as easily get lost in the hypnotic beat and swirling noise and forget about the real world. Even if the point gets lost, there’s power in the simple freedom to experience this music in whatever way you choose.