Originally a lo-fi side project for Stereolab vocalist Laetitia Sadier, Monade has grown into a fully-formed and altogether lovelier creature. It should be noted that Sadier isn’t especially well known for the loveliness of her work. Stereolab’s stuff, with its Krautrock grooves and situationist lyrics, is of course desperately cool but often sounds a bit like an intellectual exercise.
As an antidote to the perky goonery of Britpop, it was certainly refreshing; but these days the iciness just could be wearing a bit thin. Sadier still isn’t the kind of woman you’d want to get into an argument about post-structuralism with, but Monstre Cosmic does demonstrate a partial melting of that glacial facade.
Confined to lyrical duties in Stereolab, here Sadier gives herself the chance to demonstrate her considerable abilities as a songwriter. Keyboards and synthetic sounds still provide the driving force for the music, and the lyrics are still evenly divided between English and French – but there the similarities end.
Monstre Cosmic veers between breezy vintage Gallic pop and wonky bubblegum post-rock in the vein of Blonde Redhead. At its most mellow it evokes misty visions of Parisian twentysomethings riding around on bicycles with pastel jumpers tied over their shoulders. But whenever the tone threatens to become sweeter than Brigitte Bardot tucking into a tarte aux framboises, Sadier throws a very welcome spanner into the works by suddenly slowing the temp down, speeding it up, or pulling the song in hand into a completely unexpected direction.
Parping trombones, squeaky strings, and humming stylophones periodically punctuate the overall texture, never quite allowing it to settle into easy listening. Once we bite our tongues and make the effort to take seriously Sadier’s stated intention of using Monade’s music to replicate the ‘the elusive flow of water,’ the structure of the songs starts to make sense. Typically they evolve rather than going around in circles – without ever sounding contrived – and the verse-chorus pattern is subtly ditched without any noticeable loss of accessibility or appeal. Changes of tempo are used powerfully throughout, particularly on Invitation which see-saws between austerity and lushness with captivating results.
The innovative backing suits Sadier’s voice, perking up its distant tone and familiarly limited range. The lyrical content is less at home, however. Stereolab’s music quite suited its swathes of Marxist sloganeering, providing a hipper-than-thou context for some ice-cool political posturing. On Monstre Cosmic, the lyrics are similarly chilly, but focused squarely on the turmoils of the subconscious (and I quote: dirty monsters, rat holes, human animals, illusions of the ego ? you get the picture). Conceptually this doesn’t gel with the ease and warmth of the music: you’d have to take life pretty seriously to derive much value from lyrics like “You will see in my eyes / all the brilliance of my life / and my divinity / the monster that I am.”
Helpfully, EU lyrics regulations have been followed to the letter and so all of the songs sung in English are accompanied by a French translation, and vice versa. Of course the same po-faced psychoanalytic burrowing resonantes a lot more effectively in French, sounding noble rather than bleak: “Tu verras dans mes yeux / tout l’eclat de la vie / et ma divinite / le monstre que je suis.” Much better, eh? Throughout, the French language works with the music and softens the lyrics; and the English language works against it, mainly by forcing the harshness of the lyrics to the fore. If Sadier could have stuck exclusively to her mother tongue, any traces of ridiculousness would have been lost.
So then, Monstre Cosmic. Charming, sophisticated, seductive, offbeat, and not a little pretentious. And French, you say?