San Francisco Bathhouse
January 29 | Reviewed by Svenda Ström

DISCLOSURE: As an impromptu, last minute stand-in for an absentee reviewer, I write tentatively of this gig as a musician and regular admirer of live music, but not necessarily a follower of the two acts billed. Hoping that enthusiasm would compensate for my lack of knowledge, I arrived much too early, the scene subdued at a quarter past eight. Bartenders aplenty were preparing themselves for the deluge of cheerful Stereolab fans eager to see a band that had not played in Wellington for ten years. Most turned up before the support act, a solo female musician calling herself Bachelorette, entered the stage. I positioned myself in front of the mixing desk, at the back of the stage area, and curiously watched her through the shallow and equally shy wall of punters before me.

Christchurch-based Bachelorette, prior to the evening a mystery to my own ears, proved to be a comfortable contrast to Stereolab’s sound. She played about five songs in the space of half an hour, interspersed with minor technical difficulties and awkward, socially inept banter. Standing unassumingly amidst an inconceivable myriad of electronics and cords, and flanked on either side by two gigantic old-school computer monitors emitting stylised frequency waves, she reminded me of a science fiction anti-hero; the unlikely young girl who has the power to save humanity.

It is hard to describe her songs without recourse to this larger-than-life imagery, for although she simply sings sweet melodies over the top of electronic harmonic accompaniments and drum rhythms, her music feels like it penetrates a vast and age-old darkness, and fills me with indescribable sadness. The songs are grounded by an intense, rich and sweeping harmonic support, reminiscent of the sound of pan pipes, but almost as full and as thick as an orchestra. The words she sings over these sounds evoke personal losses and other private meanings, which are ultimately transcended by the strange overpowering fullness of the electronic sound she creates live on-stage.

Coming back to earth between each song, I marveled at her attempts at between-song banter, which only served to slightly alienate the audience. At one point she directed a private joke to a single audience member, behaviour I would describe as unprofessional. Her charm, however, existed in the innocently joyful, sweet and sad music she played, and her shyness did not deny her a certain experienced dedication towards the accomplished sounds she was making.

I was saved from falling deep within the abyss she created in my over-active imagination only by the early termination of her set at a quarter to ten. I felt the space ahead of me become gradually congested as Stereolab fans invaded previously unclaimed spots directly in front of the stage. The band entered about half an hour later and launched straight into their slick, loungey pop-rock.

Stereolab is, in its current manifestation, a six-piece band consisting of drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, synthesizers and vocals, with the occasional but limited inclusion of an electronic percussion instrument called a MalletKat, which is styled off a marimba and is played with percussion mallets. Five male instrumentalists stood around the central female figure: a slightly dreamy looking French vocalist with an eerily plain, understated voice. Singing often in French, Lætitia Sadier’s voice gave an original stamp on Stereolab’s post-rock thumping, and gave the band, who hail from London, a distinctly European polish.

While the incorporation of easy listening and lounge-based influences in their music is done within experimental contexts, I still felt a little frustrated at the intentional predictability of their music, which also evokes the necessarily repetitious and insistent motorik beat of the German Krautrock movement. The result sounded conventional in places, and I found myself willing them to rock out more; indeed, their encore seemed to be moving towards the eventual explosion and release of a gradually built up and consistently maintained groove, but strangely never quite got there, leaving me energised but slightly unsatisfied.

However, I was impressed by their energy and commitment, and the tidiness of their live sound, held tightly together by an impressively skilled drummer. Other listeners succumbed to the throbbing intensity of their more drawn out songs, and the post-gig atmosphere was clearly indicative of audience satisfaction. Fans present were also far more perceptive to the content of the setlist, which consisted primarily of older material (songs from Emperor Tomato Ketchup etc., as well as drawing from earlier EPs and singles), offset sparingly by their later, more orthodox work, cemented in last year’s Chemical Chords release.