Switched off

For Stereolab, pop music is all academic

Obviously Gane considers confusion vital to interviews as well, because to any question requiring a comparison, he's likely to respond, "Well, that's unquantifiable, really." It's not as if one really needs to understand Gane or any members of Stereolab to enjoy the music, but some may argue that Cobra is just too confusing. And Gane's lack of input doesn't help.

Even if Gane were willing to explain it, Cobra would still be more than a little puzzling. The album opens with "Fuses," a smorgasbord of chaotic percussion and erratic brass bleeps. It merits attention the first few listens, but doesn't invite repeated plays -- something of a signpost for the entire disc. Then there's the album's irritating 11-minute mission statement, "Blue Milk." While there's nothing wrong with a little (or a lot) of noisy improv, it'd just be nice if the song actually went somewhere.

The problem with Cobra is that it rarely exhibits the visceral immediacy of such predecessors as 1996's stellar Emperor Tomato Ketchup or even the band's last official full-length, Dots and Loops. In fact, consider Emperor the climax of the group's elliptical ascent to pop greatness.

Anonymous collective: Stereolab is, from left, Tim Gane, Mary Hansen, Laetitia Sadier, Simon Johns, and Morgan Lhote
David Cowlard
Anonymous collective: Stereolab is, from left, Tim Gane, Mary Hansen, Laetitia Sadier, Simon Johns, and Morgan Lhote

While Emperor was playful, daring, and more elastic than a bungee cord, the follow-up Dots was much more fluid and refined, but still dazzling. But Cobra hardly seems like the next addition to this series of buoyant, exotic albums. With indie-giant Jim O'Rourke at the production helm, the songs have a newly discovered baroque feel (where else would that musical saw come from?), but besides four standout tracks, the disc as a whole doesn't make a lasting impression.

Admittedly, there are some redeemable songs, including the funky "Blips Drips and Strips," which sounds like analog synthesizers burping. Sure, it's reminiscent of video-game music (the album art even looks like an Atari instruction manual), but at least it's fun. That's important when the album's centerpiece, the aforementioned "Blue Milk," is as painfully frustrating as Chinese water torture. The last two tracks, "The Emergency Kisses" and "Come and Play in the Milky Night," also have a watery feel, but instead of being grating, they are tranquilizing lullabies.

Both songs are like fleshed-out versions of earlier Stereolab recordings, recalling the hushed elegance of "Super Falling Star" and "K Stars," both tracks from 1992's Peng!. The sweet, seesaw strings, down-tempo rhythms, and undercurrent of fluid synth noise makes these songs a great choice for wrapping up an otherwise problematic record. Listening to both songs evokes nothing more than sitting under a cloudy night sky and actually hearing brilliantly lit stars poke through the dense haze. They're almost magical in their sparkling ambience.

It's exactly this seemingly premeditated cohesion (which Gane denies is intentional and claims is all "intuitive" and "spontaneous") that's lacking on Cobra. While it's fine for an album to be all over the place musically, to defy categorization, to resist genre generalizations, it would be nice if it were more focused, more concise. Gane's explanation of the album's title and artwork is indicative of the troubled waters in which Cobra harbors.

"The album title has no meaning," he says rather matter-of-factly. "It's just a series of words and phrases which came together and a metaphysical description of the music. I think it sums up the contents of the record. When I'm reading or walking around, I make notes of phrases. I make crude collages of words. It's very intuitive. The words come from a biography of Andre Breton. Phases and Cobra were two surrealist groups from Paris in the '50s and '60s. I've taken them just as words and just as a way to have a situation to make people think; a way to constantly mix things up."

Actually one of the most entertaining aspects of Stereolab is its pseudo-intellectual but legitimately whimsical song and album titles. The singing is coldly sexy and the lyrics are seemingly aloof, but both are genuinely possessed and inspired by unconventional ideas. For example, Gane elaborates -- without solicitation, mind you -- on his views of architecture and its relation to music.

"My ideas on architecture are that every building would be full of parts that would affect your critical awareness as you walk around the streets, constantly turning and returning again," Gane says. "But the way architecture is now gives a relaxing perspective, an ease of life, which I don't like. Things should be in a constant state of mental re-evaluating and new surprises and new excitement. So, I just try to add little parts of that reflected in the music that we do."

Perhaps realizing the pretentiousness of his explanation, Gane adds, "These things always sound very academic, but I just do it because I find the whole thing kind of amusing."

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