There were times during their set at the Music Box Thursday night that it seemed as though British/French popsters Stereolab were two separate bands sharing the same stage. The rhythm section, anchored by the muscular and precise drumming of Andy Ramsay, would lay down grooves that resembled Afrobeat (“Percolator”), airy, mid-’60s French pop (“Neon Beanbag”) or spaghetti Western soundtracks (“Eye of the Volcano”), while the keyboards — mostly old, analog synthesizers — would pull the songs in different various directions. Floating above the clamor, Laetitia Sadier added cool, breathy Gallic vocals.
It’s the tension between the three parts that animate Stereolab at its best, but the early going, while certainly enjoyable, lacked the skittish zip they can achieve. And when the parts fit together too easily, as in the bachelor pad pop “Chemical Chords,” the title track of their new Duophonic/4AD album, the band was simply flat, turning the song hazy and one-dimensional.
They weren’t helped by the sound mix early on, which placed Sadier’s vocals too low and over-emphasized Julien Gasc’s organ. But about halfway through the 70-minute (plus a 15 minute encore) set, starting with the second part of “Le Boob Oscillator,” when the band tears into a noisily hypnotic krautrock vamp, the energy level was ratcheted up, mixing stuttering Motown grooves with synthesized, clattering noise. Heady and danceable, it showed off Stereolab’s brainy fun.