CD Reviews

Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night

After eight years and nine albums leading the pack in the experimental pop-muzak niche they practically invented—and definitely perfected with 1996's Emperor Tomato Ketchup—Stereolab have become masters of unpredictable beauty. Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Nightcontinues with some of the same Antonio Carlos Jobim-inflected, bouncy lounge pop that chilled so well on 1997's Dots and Loops but floats through styles, time changes, big string arrangements and all-out musical freak-outs like nothing they've done before. The opening track, a driving rhythmic pattern sprinkled with screeching horns, could easily be pegged as something out of Charles Mingus' freeform jazz workshops. That is, of course, until the steadfast, dreamy vocals of Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen wrap around the beat, intertwine through a verse of do-de-do-das, and make the song unmistakably Stereolab's. After that, anything goes, from the aforementioned Latin lounge (“The Free Design” and “Blips Drips and Strips”) to quiet, reflective electro-ballads (“Puncture in the Radax Permutation” and “Velvet Water”) to seriously tedious repetition that would turn off all but the most turned-on listeners (“Blue Milk”). Cobranever really rocks and would be pretty hard to dance to, and this time around, Stereolab's spastic-but-clever experimentation can be more excluding than exciting. But hearing them float away into the nether regions of pop has always been more inspiring than listening to the slow stagnation of the genre's top sellers.

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