Review | Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, Stereolab

Stereolab, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night. Elektra 62409.

Rarely has a band been as appropriately named as Stereolab. Rooted in sixties hi-fi lingo, suggestive of sonic experimentation, the name conjures up futures past, and a resolutely, unabashedly, modernist sensibility. Thankfully, the ‘lab never fails to deliver on this premise, and has secured a place as one of the signature groups of the 1990s. Led by co-composers Tim Gane and Laetetia Sadier, the “groop” has spent the decade constructing a singular vision of popular music propelled by pulsing rhythmic repetition, ethereal vocal harmonies, and a battery of analog synthesizers. Like many groups in these retro-fueled times, Stereolab draws inspiration from the sounds of the 1960s, using the unfairly-maligned pop of figures such as Esquivel, Burt Bacharach, and Moog pioneers Perrey and Kingsley, as well the more avant-garde aesthetics of the Velvet Underground and Can, to build a constructivist sound which seeks to blur the boundaries of pop, rock, and more experimental forms. On the cusp of a new decade/century/millenium, their latest album effectively continues applies these principles, adding another level of innovation to their trademark melange of late-century sound.

On Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night,the group’s seventh full-length album, Stereolab continues its usual aural explorations with typically brilliant results. Their music is best called “avant pop,” in its ability to forge sounds which are new, reassuring, transcendental, disturbing, and resolutely sincere. However, those looking for big surprises or big leaps, like the reviewer of a few years ago who remarked that nobody needs more than two Stereolab albums (any two will do), will have to wait, or simply find a new group. Though they persist as the premier advocates for innovative pop, Stereolab works through careful exploration and exploitation of a relatively small range of rhythm and texture, crafting little surprises, in a kind of stealth mode: a long revolution, if you will.

Continuing the glossy, chamber-pop sound of 1997’s Dots and Loops, but sans its drum ‘n’ bass excursions, the group again crafts the minimalist soundscapes of Gane and Sadier, emphasizing warm, piquant analog keyboards and the bouncy vocal harmonies of Sadier and Mary Hansen, embellished by the brass arrangements of regular contributor (and sixties pop junkie) Sean O’Hagan, and the deceptively restrained sheen of producers John McEntire and Jim O’Rourke. Stereolab’s journey from the lo-fi fuzz of early 90s singles and albums like Peng! and Transient Random Noise Bursts With Random Announcements to the clean soundscapes of Dots and Loops and Cobra and Phases is in many ways archetypal of the decade’s most interesting music: i.e., away from guitars and “rock” and toward keyboards and “pop.” But rather than “progress,” in Stereolab’s case it should be thought of as a continuing evolution. Their sound is getting “glossier,” in some respects, but only as another stage in their oeuvre; their innovation and adventure have never wavered. They’ve engaged with everything from shoegazing noise to alterna-pop to bossa nova to jungle with equal degrees of success. Cobra and Phases marks another significant contribution to this unending experimentation.

New collaborator and co-producer Jim O’Rourke crafts the lion’s share of new wrinkles on this album, delivering expansive mixes which are simultaneously spartan and rich, clean and rough, warm and edgy; the collage of the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” seems an obvious influence on several of his tracks, reinforcing the ideal of modernist pop. The album begins somewhat conventionally (conventionally for Stereolab, that is). But after a few familiar-sounding opening tracks (including the cannily titled “Blips Drips and Trips,” which could as well have been “Stereolab for Dummies”), along comes “Italian Shoes Continuum,” marking a new stage for their brand of dream-pop, with its stop-and-go alternating vocal phrases and playful industrial noises which collapse on themselves and reemerge about halfway through into a driving, wah-wah riff. Similarly, “Puncture in the Radak Permutation” sounds familiar enough at first, but soon reveals new textures of percussion, keyboard, and voice, exploiting both the middle frequencies and the band’s passion for minimalism to a new level; check out the vocoder halfway through, and the beautiful string arrangement that drops into the mix out of nowhere in the last minute. Another of O’Rourke’s mixes, perhaps the most beautiful track of the CD, “The Emergency Kisses,” puts Sadier’s French murmuring front and center of an open, breezy, keyboard-focused 60s-film sound, featuring a harpsichord, jazz guitar, quiet marimba, reversed organ, and a skillfully compressed fadeout.

Of course, no Stereolab album would be complete without an extended sonic exploration somewhere around track eleven. Unlike Dots and Loops’ “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse,” which shifted gears like a Broadway medley over its twenty minutes, this album’s “Blue Milk” goes back to the basics, discovering the limited variations of one pulsing groove, thus letting the textures of the sounds carry the track rather than any notion of melody. The result is pure transcendence, and the nearest studio-recorded analog of one of the band’s justifiably famous live jams (though a lot quieter!).

Cobra and Phases’ expansive-yet-austere minimalism may disappoint those listeners who cling to the melodic pop of Mars Audiac Quintet and Emperor Tomato Ketchup; there is no “Ping Pong” or “Cybele’s Reverie” here to stick to your brain. In contrast, Cobra and Phases sees the band continue a journey forwards and full-circle. Its many rewards are in terms of pure sound: clean percussion; shimmery, understated guitars, extra-delicious vocal harmonies; warm brass; colorful keyboards; and the odd burble and crash, all delivered with an ear to the groove. Stereolab’s long revolution continues, and I hope it never ends.

Derek Kompare
Texas Christian University