Stereolab's seventh album, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night (Elektra), has been dismissed by many as more of the same. That's true in a way, but it can't be compared directly to any one previous Stereolab record. With the help of Chicago-based producers John McEntire and Jim O'Rourke, the group has synthesized its numerous past approaches into a remarkably cogent whole. The album kicks off with a jolt: at first "Fuses," a barrage of hyper bebop drumming complicated by synth squiggles that suggest free-jazz sax mania, bears little resemblance to anything else in the group's vast oeuvre, but then Tim Gane strolls in, harnessing the chaos to his trademark hypnotic strumming. Longtime associate (and head High Llama) Sean O'Hagan contributes Bacharach-ian horn arrangements, making great use of guest cornetist Rob Mazurek of the Chicago Underground Duo; McEntire lays down inventive vibraphone lines that conjure Steve Reich jamming with Martin Denny; O'Rourke adds sweetly discordant string arrangements; and everybody slathers on computer-chopped samples and sounds, some of which fit nicely into the music's nooks and some of which spill over the edges. The droning minimalism of the band's early days manifests itself in several places, from the 11-minute abuse of a single piano chord on the fragile "Blue Milk" to the return of the motorik beat Stereolab nabbed from Neu! on "Strobo Acceleration." But playing against the spartan grooves are the ever more sophisticated melodies and wordless harmonies of Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen; "Velvet Water" is as gorgeously delicate as anything Stereolab has ever recorded. Though the hooks in confections like "Infinity Girl" and "Italian Shoes Continuum" are irresistible, Cobra and Phases is definitely the group's densest and least accessible album. But in the last few years Stereolab has become a superb live act, and should easily be able to translate it onstage. Papa M (see separate Critic's Choice) and Brokeback open the first night; O'Rourke and the Chicago Underground Duo open the second. Monday, 9 PM, and Tuesday, 6:30 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark; 773-549-0203.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Cowlard.