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Stereolab makes me nostalgic for a time I never knew. Stylized completely, the group infuses its records with the sensibility of an experimental marketing program by an ex-Bolshevik graduate student in mid-’60s France. With a flurry of singles, EPs, and full-lengths released from 1992 to 1994, Stereolab grabbed the attention of everyone bored by the era’s dour, guitar-driven alternative rock. The band built the perfect soundscape of accidental noise, waves of Moog-driven bliss, and pandering pop hooks for singing ambiguously socialist lyrics in French.
The results were rather pretentious, even by the aloof standards of independent music. What is surprising, however, is how successfully the band endured and grew from such a retro base. With early song titles like “The Groop Play Chord X,” and “We’re Not Adult Oriented,” from the astounding 1993 EP Groop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, Stereolab’s ethereal pop, pushed by numerous analog organs and full-on experimental music, predated the mid-’90s obsession with Moogs and other keyboards.
Englishman guitarist Tim Gane and French vocalist-keyboardist Laetitia Sadier founded Stereolab after quitting the dogmatic socialist pop group McCarthy. They share the songwriting duties and an infatuation with pop culture of the ’50s and ’60s. Until recently, Gane and Sadier borrowed almost everything they wrote from somewhere else, whether a forgotten pop record, a communist manifesto, or furniture design. Most of the interesting pop achievements in midcentury design and style restlessly anticipated the advent of the Space Age, and although the actual developments have turned out bland by comparison, Stereolab views the mistaken guesses as a font of inspiration for both its music and its visual aesthetic.
Stereolab’s meandering between pop and experimentation wrought fusion on the band’s first major-label effort, 1996’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup, which searched for and found the perfect groove a la ’70s German prog-rockers Can and Neu. The result sounds downright funky and far more digital than analog, a conscious effort at evolving beyond the loungey sounds that first made them a hit among THC-hazed intellectuals looking for a cool drone to sit on.
Although it’s hard to say that Stereolab’s new record, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, is the band’s finest, it is the most fully realized. Gone is the fickle back-and-forth between pop and experimentation—every song seems infused with a stronger dose of each, often at the same time.
“Fuses” opens the record with a terror of rhythms. Mixed-time snare drums and blurps of horns roll over each other, occupying space for only an instant and returning at unexpected times. It’s frantic and sparse, until a repetition of vibes enters the mix to hold it together along with some strummed guitar. It’s as spare and unrealized as the best experimental jazz, effective because the band doesn’t let you in on where it’s going until all the instrument tracks have made their appearance. Then, and only then, does the whole picture emerge as a beautiful exercise in dissonance and tempo.
The complexity of “Fuses” might stun those looking for pop accessibility, but most of the other tracks make a case for Stereolab as brilliant mavens of the languid hook. “People Do It All the Time” opens with a lovely organ-based pop riff that never completely disappears when Sadier quietly sings over the guitar strum, electronic effects, and backing vocal “bup-bup-bup-baa.” Melody arrives via new keyboard lines and horns—much more low-key than the bombastic sound of four screaming Moogs, but more affecting.
“Op Hop Detonation” hits a head-moving drive with bass and drums while dribbles of electronic sound filter through. It’s funky enough to dance to. Sadier sings about the “young and beautiful,” and the “revolution” until two minutes in, when the quiet funk gets cut by a distorted guitar and horns ascending up a scale together. The whole thing drops off to just a drum beat, until Sadier and the backing vocals come back. “Puncture in the Radax Permutation” delivers a slow repetition of organ chords and a little electronic riff while the female voices—Sadier and Australian vocalist Mary Hansen—harmonize “Lonely walker humanoid,/Listening to forgotten sounds….You detached the mechanical/Freedom it inspires, fusing with your desire….” Horns build up and fall off until the weird stuff starts: After a quick break, a sudden vibes riff moves in along with the repeated slogan “Time doesn’t know itself.” Then the whole melody gets hijacked by a string section that turns a sparse track into a lush, dense experience.
You can’t ignore the influence of co-producers Jim O’Rourke and John McEntire on this record. Cobra marks the third time McEntire, whose work with Tortoise has clearly influenced Stereolab, has helped the band record. Since he has been involved with the group, much of its focus seems to have shifted from the power of droning keyboards to highlighted percussion and rhythm. If Emperor Tomato Ketchup added funk to the band, Cobra brings out the beat. CP