The reappearance Stereolab after a decade-long hiatus has been greeted with widespread rejoicing, but tonight at least their reunion has taken a fraught turn. Not for any the reasons you might expect – especially if you’ve read some the fairly tense recent interviews given by the band’s central musical partnership, Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier, but because their tour bus broke down in the small hours, somewhere in France, causing a mad scramble to actually make the gig. “We are compromised,” announces Sadier gloomily from the stage, “but we are here.”
In truth, if you didn’t know the background, you wouldn’t realise there was anything wrong. Stereolab sound fantastic, locking into grooves that feel both insistent and lissom. It also provides an opportunity to ponder what a strange niche Stereolab have carved out over their 19-year career. For all the influence they exerted – lauded by everyone from Deerhunter to Tyler the Creator – you’re never far from a reminder how unlike other bands they were and are. “This is a song about architecture,” fers Sadier, introducing Baby Lulu. A voice in the crowd repeatedly requests a favourite song: “John Cage Bubblegum! John Cage Bubblegum!” He gets his wish at the end the encore, but before that Stereolab play what you might loosely call the hits, French Disko and Ping Pong, the latter provoking the least likely audience singalong imaginable: “It’s alright cause the historical pattern has shown how the economical cycle tends to revolve in a round decades.”
The cocktail Neu!-derived motorik pulse and Velvet Underground-ish drone found on the earliest tracks they play, 1993’s Lo Boob Oscillator and Crest, might be the most influential aspect Stereolab’s sound – it’s become a standard alt-rock trope, deployed by more mainstream bands than Stereolab as a kind shorthand for “we are more arty than you might have thought” – but for all their hypnotic power, it’s the later, more airy songs that really hit home tonight. With their arcane influences and lyrics inspired by situationism and socialist philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis, Stereolab’s music has a tendency to look dry as dust on paper, but they rarely stinted on pop melodies. The jazz inflections and easy-listening funk Miss Modular and Brakhage float beautifully by: as strange and beguiling as ever, as are the band who recorded them.