On Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Stereolab began to change the way they recorded their songs. Instead of building them out of locked grooves and briskly strummed guitars, they pieced songs together out of loops, added parts and instruments as they went, and drifted away from motorik avant-pop towards something freer and more musically expressive. Dots and Loops furthered the experiment, adding more jazz and electronics to the formula with the help of Mouse on Mars and John McEntire of Tortoise. When the group got together to record their next album after a short layoff, they decamped to a small studio in Brixton and the band's chief composer/tinkerer Tim Gane set about outfitting it with the gear they needed. Along with McEntire, Jim O'Rourke was brought in to co-produce what became Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night.
Stereolab and the crack creative team (which also included stalwart Sean O'Hagan of High Llamas) build on the changes of the previous two albums in interesting and satisfying ways. They go on sonic journeys that spiral past the already far-out realms of Dots and Loops -- "Blue Milk" stretches and twists chords and sounds into an outer-space symphony of noise, on "Fuses" the band barely holds on as drums clatter, horns splat, and marimbas meander -- but they also refine their blend of jazz, exotica, and soft rock into bubbling, horn-driven pop that's compelling and challenging. The mix of the two Chicagoans' avant-garde tendencies with O'Hagan's classicism and the band's tightly wound playing makes for some dramatic moments on tracks like "The Free Design," which sounds like ABBA played by Steely Dan and a late-'60s jazz combo, or the rollicking "Come and Play in the Milky Night," which has a driving, off-kilter rhythm that's overlaid with swooping organs and abrasive guitars.
The showy production and sometimes busy arrangements might have been overbearing if they weren't paired with typically memorable and melodically pleasing songs. Luckily, the album is full of the kind of hooky, sticky songs that Stereolab made their name on. "People Do It All the Time" is candy sweet on the surface and biting on the inside, "Infinity Girl" is a keyboard-heavy future baroque jam, and "Strobo Acceleration" jumps back in time for some fine motorik pop. No matter the sound or style, the vocal duo of Lætitia Sadier and Mary Hansen make the songs come to life. Their interplay is one of the main strengths of the band, and even on the most stylized tracks, their harmonies give the songs a warmly beating heart. On the quieter songs like "Velvet Water," where the instruments step back and their voices come to the front, the effect is breathtaking. Hansen gets to take a rare lead on "Puncture in the Radax Permutation," and it's one of the album's many highlights. While it can be difficult at times, Cobra is Stereolab at their near best. It combines dense experimentation that engages the mind with lovely pop songs that pluck at the heartstrings.
[The 2019 reissue of the album adds a second disc of rarities, unreleased tracks and demos culled from the band's archives. There's a song that first showed up on the Japanese CD edition of the album ("Galaxidion,") two different mixes of "Continuum, an experiment in backwards tracks ("Backwards Shug,") and a different mix of the future EP track "With Friends Like These," which Gane says in the liner notes could have easily been placed on the album to up the pop quotient. The demos were cut at home by Gane and Sadier; short snippets consisting mainly of guitar and vocals that were to be used as a guide for the rest of the band. These are fascinating glimpses into the creation of the songs; many of them sound nothing at all like the finished product. Taken as a whole, the second disc is a revelatory dive into the band's process and adds all kinds of value to the original album. A must have for Stereolab collectors!]