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About ten minutes into Margerine Eclipse, the new album by art-rock legend Stereolab, something astonishing and strangely familiar happens. Right in the middle of the dreamy, floating "....sudden stars," the band suddenly shifts into overdrive. The drums coalesce into a straightforward 4/4 beat, the guitars begin chopping away, and the keyboards -- which had previously been spiraling into thin air -- become thick and dirty. It's a return to the vintage Stereolab sound, that one-chord Kraut rock drone that the band practically patented as its own. The glorious noise only lasts 30 seconds, seemingly a brief flashback before returning to the song's dreamlike state.
Except that it's no flashback. For the first time in close to a decade, Stereolab is once again allowing itself to rock in its own smart, idiosyncratic way. Margerine Eclipse is the kind of upbeat, cheerful Stereolab album some of us figured we'd never hear again.
Starting with 1997's Dots and Loops, Stereolab began to drift away from hooks, melody and the other basic building blocks that had defined its sound to that point. Under the tutelage of Chicago producers Jim O'Rourke and John McEntire, the group recorded a series of albums that drew heavily from experimental music, ambient techno and 1970s Italian disco. While the albums had their moments, huge swaths of Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night and First of the Microbe Hunters were almost incidental, working better as soundtracks to imagined experimental films than as listening experiences.
But on Margerine Eclipse, Stereolab has finally harnessed its experimental instincts to its natural gift for pop hooks and hypnotic groove. From the mesmerizing opener "Vonal Declosion," the band is resolutely focused, rediscovering its neglected strengths and taking more audible joy in the process than it has in years. Toward the end of "Margerine Rock," an archetypal Stereolab rocker complete with "ba-da-ba" backing vocals, you can hear singer Laetitia Sadier repeatedly screaming "Wooo!" underneath the mix.
It's a triumphant moment for the members of Stereolab, who have endured their share of hardship over the past year. In December 2002, core band member Mary Hansen died in a bicycling accident in London at age 36. The loss shocked not only the band but its fans, who loved Mary for her distinctive voice and quietly cool stage presence. Stereolab had just spent months building Instant O, its own studio, in the south of France. Now, as guitarist Tim Gane remembers it, he was unsure if the band would even exist to use it.
"There was a period after Mary died when we didn't do anything," says Gane. "We weren't even sure if we wanted to do records anymore. Everyone had been questioning whether they wanted to continue or not."
But once the initial shock wore off, the surviving band members -- Gane, Sadier, drummer Andy Ramsay, bassist Simon Johns and keyboardist Dominic Jeffrey -- regrouped at Instant O and decided to move forward with the recordings. They had already written most of the music some months earlier, and things were already progressing in an upbeat direction. Gane had even gone back and unearthed old Stereolab source tapes as part of the writing process, splicing unfinished riffs from ten years ago into the new compositions just to see how they fit together. Recording this new material went a long way toward the healing process, Gane recalls.
"In the very fact of recording those songs, there was a feeling that [Mary] was there," Gane says. "Partly there was just a relief that we were doing music again after the previous three months. We figured that [the album] would be a natural response to what happened. None of the music was changed. I didn't want to have any contrivances at all about how things would be affected. But of course, they were affected, and I really like the way it came out. I think we were quite natural with the whole thing. We allowed things to develop the way they went."
While the music was virtually finished before recording, the lyrics were written later. Not surprisingly, they contain some of Stereolab's most personal words to date, many addressed directly to Hansen. In the touching "Feel and Triple," Sadier laments a "memory of a friend, memory I need to embrace" and wishes her well: "As much as I don't want to/I have to say goodbye/You will sing forever like an angel who flew away." It's a subtle yet poignant tribute, a plaintive admission of loss within a decision to carry on.
"I've had conversations with people who are surprised that the record is upbeat, but to me it's not a surprise," Gane says. "If you knew Mary, she was absolutely not a gloom-and-doom sort. The record never would have been that. It is an upbeat record, but to me, it's definitely got a sort of melancholy side. There's something going on as an undertone."
Always a superior live band, the shows on Stereolab's current tour have by all accounts been celebratory experiences. With two additional musicians on board, the band has done justice to the new material while plundering the back catalog for rarely-heard oldies. "It's working quite well," Gane says. "It's different from before, but I find that no one's had anything very negative to say. I think it's something we needed to do. We couldn't just go back and re-create what we'd done before."