Friday, June 3, 2011

Reviews from the Attic: Stereolab - Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night


by Debbie Chou

I dated this guy in college who introduced me to everything I needed to know about indie music, free jazz, and avant garde. He was into Sonic Youth, Joy Division, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, John Cage, Steve Reich… you name it. In fact, if we were still on speaking terms, he would be a frequent contributor to Fucking Nostalgic. But that’s a different story...

Stereolab was one of his favorite bands. It was my second year as a composition student and I was hungry for new music or anything that seemed new to me. I purchased Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night and my ears fell in love.

The album opens with “Fuses.” A funky Afro-Cuban beat under frantic horns, steady vibraphones over a changing rhythm, topped with Lætitia Sadier’s soft voice (reminiscent of Astrud Gilberto) and the back-up vocals of Mary Hansen (may she rest in peace). The beauty of “Blips Drips and Strips,” as well as the entire album, is its minimalism. You forget how repetitive the melodies are because there are constant changes everywhere, and because the vocals do not serve as the purpose of a main melody. They are instruments themselves, with every “dee-da dee” and “da da da.” The vibraphones, under John McEntire’s direction, are my favorite element in the entire album.

“Italian Shoes Continuum” and “Puncture in the Radek Permutation” are retro, dreamy numbers until a sonic explosion interrupts and takes us on a futuristic journey. The vibraphones in “Puncture in the Radek Permutation” take over with a repetitive, Philip Glass-like arpeggio. The moment when you start to think the song was starting to feel almost too repetitive, a jarring string section enters out of nowhere. Bravo for the arrangement, Jim O’Rourke.

What can be said about my favorite track “The Free Design” is that I once wanted to arrange it for a live band. Though, this never happened. I just loved the funky bass line and triangle beat underneath the loud and proud horn section (which also shamelessly sample a phrase from Abba’s “Dancing Queen”). And again, the vibraphones! With the motor turned on, played over the chord changes along with the organ, it creates a brief moment of tension followed by a dissonant flute passage. Then everything abruptly cuts off, leaving the glorious vibes hanging in the air and loops of Lætitia and Mary (or is it just one of their voices? One can never tell—their voices blend too perfectly). Just when you thought the song was over, everyone comes back in with a grand finale until it fades out. Wouldn’t you want to hear it performed live too?

“The Spiracles” reminds me of “Close to You” by The Carpenters. There is innocence and youthfulness in this short song, as if we were skipping down a hill and holding hands on a sunny day while bobbing heads from side to side. And as if this song couldn’t get any better, it’s also in French.

Towards the end of the 11-minute long interlude “Blue Milk,” we enter a short, happy Sonic Youth-like rock jam until it abruptly ends, and then we are taken to a railroad track on a slow, steady train, fading out of this dream and back into another jolly Carpenters-esque “Caleidoscopic Gaze.”

If you’re ever tired of your punk rock, indie, and electronica collection, give this one a visit. Throughout the entire album, if you get lost in the music, you could easily forget which era you were in. For you fans of Lætitia Sadier in NYC, she is performing at le Poisson Rouge on June 13 with Erika Spring (of Au Revoir Simone) and Arturo en el Barco. Tickets can be purchased here. See you there.

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