Switched off

For Stereolab, pop music is all academic

Stereolab has often been maligned by critics for being too artsy and elite, and not without good reason. After all, well, it is. Many of the group's songs are sung in French, and the lyrics frequently allude to Freud and Jung's thoughts on psychoanalysis. But the criticism the band has endured for its highbrow songs doesn't compare to the flak it received for selling one of them -- "Parsec," from 1997's Dots and Loops -- to Volkswagen for use in a television commercial.

It wasn't long before fans were claiming that this vocally anti-capitalistic group had sold out, pointing to the hypocrisy of vocalist Laetitia Sadier's railing against corporations such as IBM. Of course, Stereolab doesn't care what you think, as long as they can get you thinking. And as Tim Gane, Stereolab's co-founder and chief songwriter, says, everyone has to pay what they owe.

"We do music -- like LPs and lots of music -- which is basically for free for friends and labels, and occasionally we have to do music for commercial reasons," Gane replies, via phone from Bordeaux, France. "I don't have a problem with it. I think in America there seems to be a problem, but not anywhere else. It's just understood here. I never would do anything which would inhibit our control of what we do. We never would change something for an external reason like that. That must be completely understood. It's just an advert; it doesn't mean anything. It has no artistic value, the only value it has is that it enables us to pay some debt or buy something for the band."

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

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This dedication to self-government is what makes Stereolab special. The group has persistently pumped out bright, quirky, socially conscious albums, releasing nine LPs (and dozens of EPs, split singles, and compilation appearances) since its formation in 1991. The band signed to a major label, Elektra Records, circa 1993, but also continues to run its own label, Duophonic, which releases music from Stereolab side-projects and other lesser-known UK bands.

Gane reaffirms that Stereolab's affiliation with Elektra has not eroded the band's creative integrity. "We've never done anything different by the fact that we're on a major label," Gane defends. "Every record is as we would have done it no matter what. The idea that suddenly millions of people are going to start buying your records is crap."

There's little chance that millions of people will suddenly start buying Stereolab's latest, the recently released Cobra and Phases Group Plays Voltage in the Milky Night. Compared with most of the major-label detritus spewed out to the masses these days, Cobra is a breath of fresh air. However, when placed alongside Stereolab's previous efforts, it's just a little stale. Listening to it is sort of like reheating last night's rather tasty stew only to find it congealed and chewy.

The problem is that Stereolab's prize-winning formula has been one of innovation -- call it aural quilt-work. They've extracted the best from such divergent forms as jazz, Kraut-rock, bossa nova, French lounge, drum 'n' bass, and post-rock and patched them into unusually engaging musical mosaics. Yet there's just not much innovation on Cobra, nothing the band hasn't done better before. Gane says the group's style has always been a hit-and-miss proposition.

"They were simple observations to see how we could create something new by the activity of juxtaposition," Gane says, referring to his songwriting process. "I just have a mind that when I hear something, I hear the possibility of doing something within that in a new context, in a new environment. I suppose we were one of the first to do certain things that now have a more musical currency in the '90s, but I'm not interested in accepting credit or congratulations. They were just explorations. Sometimes you hear something new, sometimes you don't. Obviously it's better when you do."

That very sentiment holds true in the case of Cobra. Not that the album isn't good -- it's a highly listenable collection of typical Stereolab songs -- it's just not trailblazing in the Stereolab sense of the word. For years the pop auteurs have built songs from conflict, joining contrasting sounds, ideas, and words. The vocal sweetness of Mary Hansen and Sadier coupled with lyrical socialist diatribe that cuts to the bone, or tinkling marimba atop the buzzing, raw sound of an analog synthesizer -- these are the contrapositions that make Stereolab albums interesting to listen to and fun as ever to dissect and debate.

Gane reflects on this very intentional way of challenging the group's listeners. "I always liked the way the words and music interact in a really uncontrived way," he says. "Sometimes they work very well, sometimes they're awkward. That's the way I like it. I don't like things to be contrived. Some people have more of a problem because most music that's of a political content, or anti-establishment content, tends to be coupled with certain types of music or a certain approach. Because ours isn't, it's a bit confusing. But I like confusion. I like contradictions in music. They're very important in music."

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.

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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