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Test Group: Stereolab gets even more experimental in its quest for a new sound.

Celestial Lo-Fi

Both soothing and rousing, Stereolab applies a beautiful polish to complex, layered tunes on 'Cobra'

By Michelle Goldberg

WHEN STEREOLAB first formed in 1990, the band's blissed-out dada mix of bachelor-pad chill-out music, cheerfully obsolete synthesizers, droning shoegazer guitars, intricate percussion, serene French vocals and Marxist rhetoric held out the promise of a heavenly respite from the macho excesses of both grunge and techno. Almost instantly, the band's coterie grew into a cult, and within a few years almost everyone would agree that Stereolab was one of the most important bands of the decade.

In fact, Stereolab may have been too influential--just look at the so-called lounge movement that the group helped spawn. Several years later, Stereolab's sound has thoroughly pervaded the indie landscape, so much so that the unexploited genres from which Stereolab once drew--especially Esquivel and old movie soundtracks--have become clichéd.

The mellow space-age vibe that made early Stereolab albums like Peng! so hypnotic and otherworldly has grown common, thanks to bands like Air, Saint Etienne and Pizzicato Five. "Ye-ye"-influenced French vocals are now nearly ubiquitous, especially in the wake of critical favorite April March's Chrominance Decoder, an album whose faux-naïf easy-listening ambiance seemed heavily influenced by Stereolab's 1997 lounge apotheosis, Dots and Loops.

Perhaps that's why on its newest album, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night (Elektra), Stereolab seems to have made a deliberate attempt to become even more esoteric, a direction they've been moving in ever since 1996's Emperor Tomato Ketchup. On that album, the hip-hop, dub and funk elements balanced the heady experimentalism.

Since then, though, most of Stereolab's avant-garde impulses and nostalgic lounge leanings have grown more pronounced, creating music sometimes impenetrable, sometimes kitschy. In 1998, the band released the double-album rarities collection Aluminum Tunes, which contained several gems but far too many percussive meanderings and abstract noise sculptures--tracks that sounded like the Velvet Underground minus Lou Reed's anchoring lyrics.

On Cobra, tracks such as "Blue Milk," with its endless drone and squelching effects, continue in that vein, demanding a patience to appreciate that's more in keeping with the world of underground art galleries than that of pop.

The sugared harmonies that won Stereolab so many fans initially have been toned down, and the hip-hop- and funk-derived beats of Emperor Tomato Ketchup have been almost entirely scrapped in favor of the kind of retro hipster vibe that dominated Dots and Loops. The new album also has the band venturing further than ever into experimental jazz. Rather than the lulling, instantly captivating delights of their earliest work, parts of Cobra require a kind of a studied connoisseurship.

THE BAND'S FEEL for texture and the contrast between lush cheesy-listening melodies and wild abstraction continues to fascinate, but the joy of discovery, of hearing something that sounded like nothing else on earth, that once accompanied each new Stereolab release is entirely gone.

This certainly isn't the band's fault. The growing popularity of the hybrid Stereolab pioneered has begun to reveal that although much of the band's appeal lies in its musical brilliance, some of its work depends too much on novelty.

The new album's opening track, "Fuses," is both more frenetic and more affectless that most of Stereolab's work. Discordant horn blasts punctuate hectic percussion, while a marimba lends a bit of sweetness and order. Laetitia Sadier's nonsense vocals ring out above it all.

The underwater quality of the singing on "Italian Shoes/Continuum" is lovely and bizarre, but the chaotic bebop assault of the music quickly grows grating. Fans will call it "interesting," and others will consider it pretentious, but few will find it particularly involving. And the Atari-style sound effects that were once so distinctive simply seem like shtick on tracks like "Op Hop Detonation."

Because so many of Stereolab's trademarks have been thoroughly appropriated, the band's challenge is to stake out new sonic territory without falling into willful obscurity. The best songs on Cobra succeed through experiments in phrasing, layering and structure.

On "Puncture in the Radax Permutation," for example, Sadier sings in short, tart bursts. Strings that appear near the song's end lend it a passion and pathos missing elsewhere on the album. Similar groovy pleasures abound in the sprightly, bouncy funk and deliciously syncopated backing vocals of "Blips, Drips and Strips."

"Velvet Water" foregrounds Sadier's voice against a spare, chiming background. Plaintive vocal hooks, rare on the rest of Cobra, bring the song's tender beauty home.

Beyond these few standouts, a huge gulf divides Stereolab, even at its most inscrutable, from other "experimental" rock bands.

ALTHOUGH SOME of the numbers on Cobra are initially difficult enough to turn listening into a chore--almost always a bad sign in pop--they eventually open themselves up, rewarding sustained attention. Even the aforementioned "Blue Milk" eventually coalesces into a weird, lovely hum, a prettily tinny tune whose beauty is only highlighted by the chaos that preceded it.

Nevertheless, the best Stereolab songs are those that you don't have to try hard to love. The most enchanting track on Cobra, "The Emergency Kisses," is also one of its most dense. Several layers of percussion, odd bleeps and washes of ambient sound swim effortlessly together. Noises drop into and out of the mix, finally melding together in a kind of celestial lo-fi symphony. Both soothing and rousing, "The Emergency Kisses" shows how gorgeous complexity and innovation can be.

Stereolab is a radical leftist band that finds inspiration in some of the most thoroughly bourgeois music. At its best, its structures deliver complexity and intellectual stimulation, but the songs remain elegant, lush and packed with mellifluous indulgences.

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From the September 16-22, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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