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Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night

music reviewmusic reviewmusic review  out of 4 Music Review: Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night

Artist: Stereolab
Genre: Rock/Pop
Release Date: September 1999

Review by MarkR
3½ stars out of 4

Like the French? How about socialists? If you don’t own a Stereolab record yet, it’s not for the band’s lack of effort. COBRA AND PHASES GROUP PLAY VOLTAGE IN THE MILKY NIGHT marks Stereolab’s tenth album in seven years for Elektra, British post-rock indie Too Pure, the band’s own Duophonic Super 45 imprimatur and various other labels (I won’t even get into singles and EPs). That’s way too much music for any sane person to wade through; luckily, their new 75-minute album neatly encapsulates and compresses the different threads of music the ‘Lab have been weaving thus far.

A prolific ensemble, Stereolab are not one whose major releases stray erratically from one to the next -- except following the edgy pop of their debut, 1992’s PENG!, which original members Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier seemingly outgrew as they made it. Hence, COBRA AND PHASES won’t confuse listeners captivated by the last two albums, ‘96’s breakthrough EMPEROR TOMATO KETCHUP and its ultra-accessible follow-up, DOTS AND LOOPS (not forgetting, of course, last year’s Drag City release ALUMINUM TUNES: SWITCHED ON, Vol. 3, a collection of B-sides and rarities.)

But where KETCHUP consolidated the band’s individual contributions into a sound altogether funkier and more coherent than the sometimes kitschy impressions left by earlier works -- Dots and Loops taking this formula to new heights of listenability -- the new album moves on to further explore the themes and ideas those and previous, more obscure records asserted without regard for commercialism. It also finds Chicago avant-rock further co-opting the Stereolab sound, with Tortoise major domo John McEntire pushing Gane and Sadier’s compositions deeper into the anti-noodling prog frontier than he did on the previous two Elektra albums.

Opener “Fuses,” a jazzy skronk illuminated by the somnolent scatting of Sadier and Mary Hansen, stutters into shape chasing McEntire’s traps. McEntire’s drumming commenced the last Tortoise disc in similar fashion, and his fingerprints coat every inch of this album. Everyone’s favorite French Marxist, Sadier still coos and purrs her mini-manifestos on shedding the bonds of the societal vassalage and social determinism through service to a higher, if vague, humanistic purpose; “Humble biped you’ve come undone,” she sings in “Puncture in the Rada Permutation,” a song in which the electronic keyboardist actually argues against technology in the name of personal liberation. And “Caleidoscopic Gaze” rallies a cry for the cause of nudism, unless I’m reading a second-language metaphor too literally.

But Stereolab’s lyrics argue against complacency at the same time their music lulls you into it. People don’t listen to Stereolab for the words, however -- good thing considering a larger portion of this album’s are sung in French than usual. Adding to the challenge, every exercise in pop exuberance (“People Do It All the Time,” “Infinity Girl,” “Op Hop Detonation”) comes hidden amongst more challenging, drone-based fare often sans the immediate, percolating rhythms of recent releases.

Cobra and Phases’ thematic center, “Velvet Water” and “Blue Milk” are songs of a piece, sung entirely in French, in staid rhythms that aren’t allowed vent until briefly at the end of the latter. It’s as if Stereolab, one of the most successful bands existing outside music-industry machinery, made their concessions to pop music structure and form and now ask that listeners follow them headlong into the milky night of sound, a reasonable request based on this record.



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