Review Summary: The Milky, Milky Night
Hello, it’s your friendly cyberspace DJ, gatekeeping the discographies of every band ever to create their own inimitable bubble of reality out of a mishmash of easily distinguishable influences! Just dropping by to inform you that no band has ever pulled this off with quite as much combined blitheness and bravery as Stereolab (probably). Although their cocktail of krautrock, psychedelic, pop, lounge, noise pop, electronic and early post-rock treated genre boundaries as a casual plaything, their music never felt like the stuff of concerted statements; the Stereolab sound in all its guises was maturely realised to the extend that it smoothed over many a sharp twist of the road from album to album or, occasionally, within individual songs. Lætitia Sadier, Tim Gane and co. weren’t ones to bite off more than they could chew, and their music gains considerably from the way it sacrifices maximalist dramatics for an understated sense of confidence.
Uh, what? We’re barely underway and you already
want a case-in-point for all this? Well, look no further than 1999’s perplexingly overlooked Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night
! Though it isn’t as focused as Dots and Loops
or as arresting as Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements
may well be the biggest and bravest Stereolab album. As far as their mish-mash outings go, it tends to get go overlooked (mainly in favour of the more readily digestible Emperor Tomato Ketchup
), which makes for a crying shame! Cobra…
is a fantastic outing that boasts some of Stereolab’s most impressive tracks and perhaps their most interesting twist on the album experience. Stylistically, it takes 1996’s Dots and Loops
’ experiments in electronic and lounge as its foundations, adopts a more versatile and less densely atmospheric tone without losing its predecessor’s enigmatic edge, and threads it through a series of unpredictable yet oddly cohesive capers. It smacks of Stereolab’s core qualities from the start to finish: on paper, the band juggled ideas, but in practice they just seemed to let them happen.
All this is made clear in the album’s somewhat baffling opening run. Opener “Fuses” is a mildly obtrusive oddball jazz cut that swiftly asserts a wry shuffle in place any of the Dots and Loops
grooves that initially seemed destined for an album-length reprise. The track is forthright in its quirkiness yet holds itself together almost casually, at once reticent to settle on a firm direction but too assured to be undone by this. This is quickly cemented as an ongoing theme: “People Do It All The Time” comes off as a twee, lethargic reinvention of Peng!
’s vibrant guitar pop, while “The Free Design” and “Blips Drips and Strips” intersperse Lætitia Sadier and Mary Hansen’s trademark vocal harmonies and phrasings over over mesmeric grooves and disarmingly uncontoured core melodies.
Business as usual in some senses, but the album hardly teases its overall shape until “Italian Shoes Continuum” comes around. The meandering psych-pop of the track’s first half feels like a soft eureka moment, fleshing out a distinctive atmosphere that seems on the one hand mysterious and on the other blithely uninvested in fleshing out the source of said mystery, all exemplified by apprehension-inducing chord changes, occasional incorporation of glitch samples and vocal melodies that ascend towards some form of revelation in one bar, only to back away from it the next. Midway through, the song shifts gears into a full-on psychfest that somehow ramps up the bpm and percussiveness without losing any of the track’s extant fragility. It’s a classic “why/why not?” moment that proves to be a Big Bang of sorts for the record; the scope of this ethos is felt clearly and consistently through the rest of its tracklist, and in the wake of all this the open 16 minutes don’t feel so much like a red herring as much they do an endearing flex from a band that seemingly has all the time, attitude ideas in the world to play with on this record.
Things continue in this vein, with a shared undercurrent of ambivalence and playful darkness that calls back to “Italian Shoes Continuum”’s blueprint with steely cogency. This is apparent even in “Infinity Girl”, one of the band’s catchiest and brightest pop tracks; in the shadow of its predecessor, its rhythm seems to lilt and lurch in equal measure, and Sadier’s refrain “Scatterbrained by the sins of silence
” takes a more sinister edge. It’s a real earworm and almost plays out as uniformly upbeat and plucky, but there’s an undertone of something else here - all things considered, the song has a delicious edge to it. This edge persists and yields steady returns, transforming “The Spiracles” and “Velvet Water” from respective whimsical toe-tappers and a zany chillouts into something more guarded, reflective and engaging. The vagueness of that something smacks of a je ne sais quoi
on my part, but it’s an apt reflection of Cobra…
’s tone. The album is thoroughly ambivalent, and not in a way that is ever flushed through or demystified; it certainly isn’t a dark release, and its tone is overall lighter than Dots and Loops
’, but it has a propensity to dip its toes in and out of the disarming minor chords, solemn melodic phrases, and haunting moments of sparseness that you’d associate with moodier fare. This normally lasts for moments at a time, for instance in the stern brass motif that punctuates “Op Hop Detonation” midway, but it gives it the album an evasive, gently gripping quality uncommon to other Stereolab albums (or most music, honestly). Emperor Tomato Ketchup
was similar to an extent, but it was far easier to pinpoint the contrasts between that album’s various acts of eclecticism. Stereolab explicitly prided themselves on their many reinventions, but Cobra
’s sly mood gives it a special platform for versatility; this album is perhaps their bands peak as far as balancing disparate tracks cohesively is concerned.
All of this comes to a head on the highlight track “Puncture In The Radak Permutation”, the most immediately stunning track here and a career highlight. The song’s melodies are outright dramatic, the kind of stuff you could rework into a thriller score with minimal effort, yet the band’s characteristically starchy choice of tones and phlegmatic sense of groove is as averse as ever to crassness; the song’s chief source of tension is not its tense melodic vocab, but the band’s restraint in refusing to ham up this attribute to forthrightly. The result is spellbinding and makes for a centrepiece of sorts…only to be followed by another, of other sorts! The 11-minute marathon “Blue Milk” is perhaps the most evasive moment of the lot, a shimmer build towards nothing that wears its starch on its sleeve and comes within spitting distance of shared appeal with drone pieces. It’s laboured to a fault, but secure enough in its dynamics that it ends up as an unexpected palette cleanser. Stereolab’s occasional branding as post-rock makes a good deal of sense here; this track doesn’t so much subvert the conventions of how a rock band are expected to present themselves, as they did on Transient Random-Noise Bursts
, as it straight-up disregards their existence. Around nine minutes in, it breaks the shape of its endlessly repetitive metronomic twinkle to rock out (read: get abruptly more upbeat and introduce a motorik beat) for one token minute. Needless to say, the track is equally abrupt in reverting to a less momentous cooldown version of its earlier self. The statement couldn’t be clearer: Stereolab are invested in the subtle development of enigmatic moods, but the good ol’ build-up/payoff pairing lies well within their region of apathy on this one. Neu! would be proud.
This is just as apparent on the album’s other long cut, “Caleidoscopic Gaze”. Despite boasting perhaps the most Stereolab-ish song title imaginable, this one is hardly more forthcoming in subscribing to set precedents for what the band should or shouldn’t sound like. It’s not as much of an anti-song as, say, Dots and Loops
’ monumental “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse”, an unashamed composite that turned seventeen-and-a half minutes into a concretely segmented daydream, but it is as keen to play fast and loose with structure. Stereolab’s knack for subtle contrast is back again: the more upbeat the instrumentation gets on “Caleidoscopic Gaze”, the more blissed-out Sadier and Hansen sound. It gets to the point where they’re practically swooning through the track's jittery mid-section, sounding more gracefully weary with every incremental rise in the song's percussiveness. It takes a slapdash confidence to pull this kind of songwriting off, but “Caleidoscopic Gaze” delivers in spades, throwing in a borderline unsegued reprise of its opening minute as a goodwill coda. “The Emergency Kisses” takes things even further, both more concise and more unapologetically disparate, but before this can register as a culminative gesture the band shy away from potential grandstanding with another swift shift of footing and well-placed wind-down. Much like “Blue Milk”’s coda, “Come And Play In The Milky Night” is a steady number that seems to tacitly acknowledge the choppier moments the precede it, without actively addressing any of its unresolved qualities. A fitting final note, all things considered - Cobra…
runs its listener through a gamut of blithe eccentricities, but keeps its cards close to its chest til the very end.
As touched on earlier, Stereolab are remarkable for the way they indirectly ridicule any presumptions of how a rock band should or should not innovate, blending styles at liberty without ever mangling them. Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night
is one of their most representative albums in this sense; while too gargantuan and too evasive to make for a perfect starting point, it shows off the band’s boldness and tastefulness to extremes. It’s a perfect follow-up to the exemplary Dots and Loops
and easily on par with Emperor Tomato Ketchup
, as far as this group’s jack-of-all-trades releases are concerned. If that ain’t incentive enough, it’s catchy, quaint and occasionally very pretty. I dunno. Don’t you sleep on it.