Britain's Stereolab has, over the course of its 10-year existence, evolved from playing cavemanlike two- and three-chord Moog mantras to constructing thick, sophisticated sitting-room pop, moved from reimagining "Sister Ray" from a chanteuse's point of view to harnessing the delicate sophistication of Brian Wilson arrangements to create propellant electronic agit-pop. Over the course of this evolution, songwriter/arranger/gear freak Tim Gane's guitar has retreated from occupying the all-consuming wall-of-measured-distortion front to being a more restrained texture among a dozen or so in any song. He's one of that rare breed of guitarists who, as they master their instrument, don't strut and wank but examine and experiment.
But despite Gane's being the center of the group, it is, as always, the pretty ladies with the pretty voices who steal the Stereolab show, those chrome-toned melodians Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen. In their role as dueling nightingales, they weave melodies and harmonies around Gane and company's countless analog organs, beats and samples, creating complex beauty that is equal parts French baroque pop, fusion, beat-based computer music and '60s soundtrack music. The result is stunning and beautiful.
Stereolab's newer stuff, starting with 1997's Dots and Loops and continuing through last year's Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night and the just-released EP The First of the Microbe Hunters (Elektra), borders on abstraction; once-straightforward melodies are now examined through a prism, and though the group still relies on hooks and structure to keep the music honest, gone are the days when a single Stereolab chord change could explode a song. Now the changes come as little firecrackers, always bursting, always just around the corner.
Opening the show is one of the most inspired and interesting products of the thriving Chicago jazz scene, the aptly named Chicago Underground Duo. The Stereolab freaks out there will know the duo from some of their extant work with hipster jam band Tortoise and its offshoot, Isotope 217. But the CUD spins revelatory circles around those bands; cornetist/noise sculptor Rob Mazurek overflows with sound, and when he's not blurting and bellowing on his cornet, he's looping and creating rhythms with a sampler; percussionist/vibraphonist Chad Taylor creates beauty that gives form to Taylor's questions, and, combined, the two create huge, engaging free-jazz/sound sculptures that are both ravishing and provocative. Get there early, and keep quiet while the Duo plays; some of us are as excited by their appearance as by the headliners'.