Music For The Cognoscenti

No lowest-common-denominator bubblegum tracks here.

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

worlds.

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

conceived album.

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.