Graded on a Curve: Laetitia Sadier, Silencio

Fans of Stereolab know Laetitia Sadier as one of that group’s most crucial assets. And those partisans of the band that haven’t already investigated her solo career should remedy the situation at the earliest opportunity. It’s early yet, but she’s already crafted Silencio, a stellar sophomore LP that’s shaping up as one of the young decade’s best politically themed albums.

Okay, right out front I’ll admit it. I have a definite predilection for the sound of a woman’s voice speaking or especially singing in the French language. A person could go so far as to surmise that I think it’s sexy. Some will say that’s predictable, others will decry it as obnoxious, still more will shrug their shoulders in indifference, and a select few might actually find this acknowledgement to be an endearing one, but in the end it’s just a plain fact; I am what I am.

Yeah sure, France Gall and the other yé-yé girls, especially Françoise Hardy and that grand muse of the Nouvelle Vague Anna Karina with her rolling-R tour de force “Roller Girl”; I’ll confess to deeply enjoying it all. But much as that’s so, I will proudly state that I greatly prefer the far more progressively inclined Brigitte Fontaine, particularly her late ’60’s/early-‘70’s work with American avant-jazz expats The Art Ensemble of Chicago; I’m not just a sucker for a pretty voice, after all.

And Brigitte Fontaine also notably worked with post-rock experimental-lounge long-servers Stereolab, a group that featured as a founding member singer/guitarist Laetitia Sadier, she of French decent and a distinctive bilingual vocal approach. Right from the beginning Sadier served as one of the best qualities about a group loaded with good angles, with her rich, at times husky voice interweaving with the tones of the late Mary Hansen to present a tapestry that was identifiable nearly instantly, and as the co-vocalists were also co-guitarists, Stereolab shaped up as one of the ‘90s least hierarchical bands, an attribute that helped make them one of the most refreshing.

But Sadier, Hansen, and guitarist Tim Gane were already music scene vets by the release of Stereolab’s debut album Peng! Hansen had been a member of The Wolfhounds and Sadier and Gane were part of McCarthy. Both bands had tracks on the NME’s C86 comp, a fact that greatly strengthens the connective tissue between indie pop and post-rock.

Stereolab went on hiatus in 2009, a sensible decision for a group that had been doing it so well and for so long. In 2010 Sadier presented her fine solo debut The Trip for Drag City of Chicago, and the same imprint has just released her even better follow-up Silencio. The differences between the two are on one hand subtle, at least for those who don’t understand Sadier’s native tongue without the assistance of translation. But after time spent with the new record, it’s clear that The Trip is a proper, well-done debut and Silencio a major work from a musician of distinction.

On one hand, The Trip was very consonant with its auteur’s personality traits, with a high ratio of English to French and with fewer dips into the Marxist bag she’s often saddled with, for the album concerned the suicide of her younger sister. And in the highly distinctive and really quite appealing huskiness of her voice, she deepened the mild comparisons to the late German-bred chanteuse Nico, though in fact Sadier has proven over two plus decades that she’s the more natural musical talent, with an oeuvre that’s in many ways just as rewarding, and that statement’s coming from someone who’s listened to Chelsea Girl over one hundred times. Easy.

But The Trip also includes three cover songs, one obscure (Wendy and Bonnie’s “By the Sea”), one representing the home country (well kept French new wave secrets Les Rita Mitsouko’s “Un Soir, Un Chien”) and one classic (Gershwin’s “Summertime”). In this sense, the record felt very much like a proper first solo album, even if it was from someone who’d been kicking it out in bands and side projects (like Monade, for one instance) for over twenty years; the choice of covers as an anchor on a debut helped to establish traction while making the first public motions of going it alone. Maybe that’s over-thinking it, but given the hugeness of Silencio, I consider The Trip a strong opening volley in Sadier’s young solo career.

By this point, the Krautrock of Stereolab’s earlier days has now become almost entirely implicit, the distorted tones that took up so much of Switched On having been jettisoned for cleaner, often glossier tones. And on Silencio’s opener “The Rule of the Game,” Sadier wisely cultivates the deep lounge aspect that’s long been attached to her résumé, her voice intermingling with wordless backing vocals in a manner quite reminiscent of Juan Garcia Esquivel.

It was always tempting to dismiss Stereolab’s lounge comparisons as overblown, but that was ultimately because they were entirely devoid of kitsch. The group dug deep into the detritus of space-age pop, exotica and soundtrack music looking not for ironic hipness but for pure sonic inspiration, and with Silencio this admirable practice continues. However, the last minute of “The Rule of the Game” does detour into an uptempo and danceable post-rock chug, complete with synth washes and yes indeed, even mild touches of motorik. And frankly, that’s a swell twist.

And one that sticks out in Silencio’s scheme of things, for it is a record highly concerned with mood. Again, that falls right in line with her lounge influences. But Sadier’s moods connect with the studied ideology of her lyrics and the tangible weight of her voice to form a well-articulated album fortified with a non-hackneyed political dimension.

While some surly (and likely apolitical) sorts will grumble that Sadier’s philosophical approach equates to being deliberately obscure, I have always found her type of political engagement refreshing, for it avoids the often trite sloganeering of folk and punk protest. Slogans are great for picket signs and for chants at rallies, but for political music (or art in general) that truly stands the test of time a higher level of understanding is required; that’s why Henry Cow and The Ex are great political bands, and that’s why Laetitia Sadier is of the same rank. Plus she’s no Jane-come-lately to the discourse, and her kind of depth, passion and knowledge are exactly what’s needed right now.

Specifically, Sadier’s work lacks the well-meaning headstrong naiveté that seems to believe and promote one song or record somehow aligning the forces and flipping the switch that solves a great social ill (which can also be an easy path to disillusionment). Instead, Silencio fights the good fight and understands that the righteous battle is indeed a constant struggle with victories and losses constantly incurred. In a nutshell, she’s in it for the long haul.

If Silencio is largely about mood then “Fragment pour le future de l’homme” provides a terrific disco-funk detour. And it’s remindful that Stereolab could’ve easily narrowed their vision to being just a leftist dance-pop act, and a damn fine one at that. As a temporary breakaway from the album’s dominant musical concerns the track is quite vigorous, escaping the pedestrian with good taste and sharp execution.

But final cut “Invitation au silence” is the record’s boldest move. Not conventional and not musical in the strict sense, it interweaves a monologue from Sadier in French intercut with the echo of its English translation (See? She’s not trying to be purposely murky), the whole endeavor concerning the concept of silence (and the acoustics of churches), and leaving us to ponder that what we often label as silence is in reality rife with layers of subtle and life-affirming aural inflection. As the track’s title makes clear, one need only listen to understand.

It serves as a brilliantly conceived ending to an expertly constructed release. Silencio is motivated by the moment, but it’s loaded with all the goods necessary to stand the test of time.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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