The latest from Stereolab, a band scheduled to appear December 2 at the Bluebird Theater, is garnering reviews that vary from average to mediocre for a very simple reason: Critics grow tired of raving about cult acts that resolutely refuse to enter the mainstream and eventually turn on previous objects of praise out of sheer boredom. But while Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night isn't Stereolab's finest disc (1996's Emperor Tomato Ketchup still holds that honor), it's a consistently engaging one that finds the group maintaining an impressively elevated level of creativity -- and I'm not afraid to admit it.
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Once again, Tortoise's John McEntire is on hand as co-producer, and his interest in avant-garde jazz colors the disc from the very beginning: Track one, "Fuses [259K aiff]," is introduced by a Max Roach-like drum pattern, swirling, spitting brass, and dancing vibes courtesy of Dominic Murcott that eventually share space with the contrapuntal nonsense vocals of Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen. Yet the bravura nature of the performance is muted by cool intellect that's in ample supply throughout songs whose variety demonstrates the increasing confidence and range of Stereolab mastermind Tim Gane and the outfit as a whole. " People Do It All the Time" offers up martial pop interspersed with High Llamas-type burbling (the Llamas' Sean O'Hagan is responsible) and dada lyrics with a lefty edge ("Fragile/Rare/Occasion out of chaos"); "Free Design" juxtaposes a swinging rhythm with programmatic rhythms and deadpan crooning; "Blips, Drips and Strips" is a heady trip to a lounge of the future; "Italian Shoes Continuum" ambles at the speed of dreams; and "Puncture in the Radar Permutation" transplants a Kurt Weillian cabaret to the far edges of the galaxy.
As usual, Gane and company keep their feelings at arm's length, thereby incurring the wrath of listeners who prefer being engaged emotionally rather than intellectually. But visceral appeal is easy (even a knucklehead like Fred Durst can manage that), while coming up with sounds that tickle and seduce the brain à la "Come and Play in the Milky Night," Cobra's lovely denouement, is a skill beyond all but a few. Noting that in print might not be as grabby as implying that Stereolab's wad has been shot. But, fortunately, it's the truth.