Future perfect

Oct 6, 1999 at 12:00 am

If you’re not familiar with England’s Stereolab, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. For close to a decade, these kids have been operating light years ahead of everyone else. Like a musical Jules Verne novel, their utopian future fever is hopelessly romantic and based on the best bits of the past’s packaging. Jazz, French pop, analog synths, Krautrock and the Beach Boys all swirl into their switched-on Bacharach sound.

The quintet – led by sound designer Tim Gane and the ultrasophisticated songstress, Laetitia Sadier – has somehow found a way to marry the popular with the avant-garde. These alchemists have turned lead into gold, honing down earlier drone-ish excursions and electronic freak-outs and subduing the gushing "la-la-las" to create their own middle ground, resulting in just what you’d expect from a group with a song titled "John Cage Bubblegum."

On their seventh album, Cobra and Phases …, the sound the group hinted at on 1997’s Dots and Loops may finally be fully realized. With the production help of post-rock icons John McEntire, Jim O’Rourke and Brian Wilson-devotee Sean O’Hagan of the High Llamas, a smart polish and shine have been applied here. String and brass arrangements accompany the band’s already lush instrumentation. More striking still is how subdued the album feels. Where overt complexity once reigned, there’s now a balance of trance-inducing rhythms, meticulously interwoven melodies and harmonies, and Sadier’s dreamy vocals.

While the album bursts into action with "Fuses," a sort of free-jazz bossa nova, many of the set’s high points are quite low-key. "Italian Shoe Continuum" drifts along with Sadier’s breathy voice sounding like transmissions from a distant planet, only to be suddenly interrupted by a blur of alarms going off before an abrupt silence. By the time "Caleidoscopic Gaze" rocks gently down the stream with its mesmerizing use of the musical saw, it’s all drawn you in to the point where the lengthening of the songs and hypnotic repetition mean nothing more than more time to play in the Milky Way.

Stereolab seems to outdo itself by undoing the listener and opening up endless, wonderful possibilities. It’s a brave new world.