WITH ITS TECTONICALLY shifting antigroove and techno-fried synth-horn chatter, the lead track of Stereolab's eighth full-length album opens kicking and spitting. It's as if this international ensemble decided to abandon the luxuriant avant-funk of 1996's Emperor Tomato Ketchup and the more evasive bachelor-fad wispiness of 1997's Dots and Loops for good old-fashioned blurt--a wise change of pace. But as the Archie Shepp-on-Neptune routine fades into the background and producers Jim O'Rourke and John McEntire push up those creamy vibes, familiar inverted Velvets riff, and doo dee, doo da cocktail-pop cooing of Laetitia Sadier, the hummability starts to seem kind of ho-hum. Sure, "Fuses" is the predictably skronky music you'd hope for after the band cloistered away for months with the dynamic duo of post-rock production. But when Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night (Elektra) finally hits a groove worthy of its title, you realize you're listening to the sound of institutional coziness, not insurrection.
Of course, Stereolab have always made innovation for innovation's sake the thrust of the band's appeal. Sadier's supposedly Marxian patter aside, they've never been about signifying anything other then the depth of their own emergent cool taste. And more people-power to 'em. Since arriving in 1992, Stereolab have opened up young, white ears as few other bands have.
Sure, Pavement gave the hipster intelligentsia a smart-ass pastiche that helped salvage rock romance in the age of irony, just as Beck taught smart-asses to slide and shwing. But no group did more to propose a whole new clandestine canon than Stereolab. Tapping into (or just plain ripping off) Martin Denny's exotica kitsch, Serge Gainsbourg's frog snootiness, Neu!'s Krautrock drone, and, with their last two albums, percolating electro-funk, they brought their heady precision and deliberate levity to a post-grunge audience sick of quiet-verse, loud-chorus dirges. Today, whether we can pin it down or not, our response to the Beasties' lounge moves, the Cardigans' detached sensuality, and Air's edgy easy glistening owes something to Tim Gane's early-Nineties insistence that retroactive internationalism can open up new ways of hearing that straight-up rock never could.
If the new Lab is beginning to sound stolid, that only speaks to our ability to internalize innovations our near elders couldn't imagine. And so we might want to note that, at various points, Cobra and Phases features some pretty amazing blippy boppy. Listen beyond Sadier's routinely dry vocals on the single "The Free Design," and you hear fascinatingly disjointed horn harmonies that almost seem to spoof the album's staler jazz accouterments. Or check the way the group has leavened the familiar drones of Mars Audiac Quintet with the orgasmatronic pep of Dots and Loops on "Strobo Acceleration."
And congratulate the producers for doing their damnedest to abstract and distort nearly every note that gets played, which at times adds nothing but technoid smarm, but often turns predictable experiments into remarkable novelties. "Italian Shoes Continuum," for instance, begins as a billowing popscape reminiscent of the High Llamas' Cold and Bouncy, with Sadier purring sweetly over the mix. But just as we're getting comfy, the vocals start fading in and out. They're on ham radio one second, set deep in our earhole the next, until they're obliterated altogether by violent bursts of percussion that soon give way to rapid, organic drum-grooving. For a minute you almost think you're listening to a real live band with soul and passion and all the other stuff organic entities can generate. Maybe the revolution is still on after all.