Few bands have fabricated their own sonic universe as successfully as
Stereolab. Since the Londoners burst onto the scene eight years ago with
a nascent, fusionary pop sound, scores of young groups have purchased
Moogs, Neu! discs and hi-fi demonstration LPs and have boned up on French
pronunciation and Marxist theory. And tried to create their own Stereolab
The problem for all the others is that Stereolab have always strode one
step no, make that a few kilometers ahead.
It's been two years since the otherwise insanely prolific group has
released new work, but the fallow period seems to have been time well
spent. Stereolab achieved a personal best with 1996's Emperor Tomato
Ketchup, which broadened their key elements French pop,
German-rock drones, bubbling organs, a loungey sensibility with
bits of trip-hop and a string section. By comparison, Dots and Loops
(1997), played like a fun day in the studio rather than a holistically
Their new disc, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky
Night, is more scattered than Emperor Tomato Ketchup but more
dense with intrigue than Dots and Loops, as it swings with a loose
jazzy influence, provided in large measure by Dominic Murcott (vibes and
marimbas) and Rob Mazurek (cornet).
Stereolab benefit from the deft touch of co-producers (along with the
band) John McEntire and Jim O'Rourke. McEntire, who's worked with
Stereolab before, assures that their slithering grooves slide over plenty
of well-oiled hills and valleys. O'Rourke, whose arranging abilities have
lately made him an underground Burt Bacharach, helps the band imbue its
futurist sound with a retro flavor.
Also notable is the ongoing presence of longtime collaborator Sean O'Hagan,
also of the High Llamas. Indeed, some songs here could pass for Llamas
productions, just as some tracks on the Llamas' upcoming Snowbug
are akin to tunes here. Stereolab's "The Spiracles" (RealAudio
excerpt), for example, floats atop the plinking harpsichord
notes that have practically become a Llamas trademark.
But this is still a Stereolab world; everyone else is just a visitor.
The compact single "The Free Design" (RealAudio
excerpt), whose title was likely inspired by the '60s light-pop
band of the same name, skips over a bouncing bassline, plush organs,
dazed vibes and a soaring brass section. On the other hand, "Blue Milk" (RealAudio
excerpt) sprawls over 11 minutes, which suggests the band is
still keen on improvising.
At 75 minutes, Cobra and Phases... is a lot to digest, and it
would be a daunting introduction to the band for neophytes. Stereolab's
dazzling, newly jazzified world is open to the public, but the band
hasn't dumbed anything down to appeal to the masses.