Nothing I’ve read about Cobra Killer has included any reference to Rudyard Kipling’s four-legged protagonist Rikki-Tikki Tavi. This strikes me as strangely remiss, given the German duo’s embodiment of the heroic mongoose’s slinky mischief and sly cunning as he, you know, kills the cobra. Their quirky — and sometimes totally nonsensical — brand of fuzzy electronica incorporates elements of new wave, dance, and garage in a way that can only be described as rascally, and so the comparison seems fair. This lack of editorial allusion hasn’t bothered Cobra Killer, however, as they release their fifth album Uppers and Downers, easily their most ambitious, to an ever broadening fanbase.
Let me reiterate two things before we go any further: this is, despite its confluence of many styles, first and foremost a work of German electronica. This means that, much like scheisse films, there’s going to be some weird stuff going down that extends beyond the quirkiness I indicated earlier. Take, for example, the opening track “Hello Celebrity”, which pathologically equates won-ton soup with being famous over a distorted and repetitious bassline. “Hang Up the Pinup” starts off with a promising hardcore sample, but quickly descends into madness as the nearly unintelligible lyrics are sped up a la Alvin and the Chipmunks, which makes the song all but unlistenable.
But then the dub leanings of “Goodtime Girl”, with its beautifully syncopated guitar line, salvages things despite its paradoxical denunciation and acceptance of feminine facades. “Schneeball in Die Fresse”, the only German-language track on Upper and Downers, is also a classic take on the darkness of German electronic music, verging at times on breaking through to full-blown industrial. The album’s finest moment is the ethereal Cocteau Twin bounce of “Upside Down the House,” which features a deep-voiced man claiming that “Buildings are phenomenon / Buildings are not real”. I don’t know what kind of Kantian dialectic Cobra Killer is trying to achieve with this, but the song is too catchy for that to matter.
From here the album returns to silliness, as on the sinister circus synth of “My First Parachute” and the juvenile goth-pop of “Matchy Matchy”. It’s strange to watch the band constantly transition from great songwriting to something more lowbrow, though I can appreciate their consistency toward their album’s theme. Thankfully, the record ends on a memorable, if still bizarre, note with the nimble guitar of “The Universe is in the Oven”.
This final song, a full incorporation of the best parts of Cobra Killer’s sound, needed to be the lasting impression of Uppers and Downers because, frankly speaking, the album is too bipolar for its own good. The chirpier, brighter songs do help balance out the more brooding ones, this much is true, but sometimes the fantastically peculiar exuberance of Cobra Killer for either end of the emotional state spectrum hinders the enjoyability of this album, making it easy to mistake their levity for a lack of professionalism simply because of how much the coherency wavers. Even the presence of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis do little to elevate the album out of mediocrity. Between the two extremes of Uppers and Downers the third choice of the happy medium would serve Cobra Killer much better.