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Margerine Eclipse

Besides death and taxes, the one other constant in life is that Stereolab will continue to create picturesque otherworldly gems that enhance our lives with multiple layers of subjective meaning. On their tenth full-length album of new compositions — and their first album since the tragic death of singer Mary Hansen — the band upholds and often exceeds these lofty expectations. In fact, Margerine Eclipse is a decided improvement upon their last three albums, discarding the dense and difficult song structures that plagued those albums.

Beyond the musical element, the other key reason for the shift in quality on an already strong catalogue is that for once the band provides the listener with some obvious and clear themes. Typically, Stereolab revel in the obtuse. Their reconstructed brand of NASA-built, Esquivel-inspired torch songs often are so vague in meaning that they tend to give the listener much latitude in interpretation. From the outset, Margerine Eclipse sends its lunar probe out in search of the well-worn intergalactic themes of loss and rebirth, and does so in grand fashion. The outcome is an album that bounces, skips and chuckles with dew-eyed wonder at this sometimes-joyous experience called life.

Opening track "Vonal Declosion" signals this return to fervor and finery. Gone are the unfocused washes of sound and mile-long tracks that were prevalent indicators of the work of producer Jim O'Rourke on Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night. Instead there is a pop-obsessed focus on skittering electronics and drum machines, as programmed by Teutonic wunderkind and Mouse on Mars member Jan St. Werner. Couple this with some frenetic guitar work from original member Tim Gaines and we have an exotic fusion of electro-pop and decadent lounge music.

Also missing from this album is the free-jazz philosophy that was brought to past albums by Tortoise members John McEntire and Doug McCoombs. These leftist leanings often diffused the power of Stereolab's sugar-coated agenda, which has returned in full force with their departure. Instead we find longtime collaborator Sean O'Hagan stepping into a more decided leadership role. As the founder of the High Llamas, O'Hagan has always aligned himself with the Pet Sounds production philosophy, emphasizing the nature of a song through the grand arrangements, vocal harmonies and unique instrumentation rather than on complex guitar, percussion and electronic interplay.

This shift is best evidenced on the third song in the "Margerine Suite," "Dear Marge," a three-part medley incorporating a mad mélange of styles into approximately seven short minutes. The first fuses electronics with acoustic elements to create a bizarre lounge-flamenco hybrid, which may be homage to electro-pop pioneer Juan Garcia Esquivel. While the second part is a more enigmatic vocal-based composition, it uses analog synthesizers, strings and looping percussion to evoke images of a last tango on Mars. The final segment is straight-up disco featuring dirty funked-up guitars, tambourine and a beat that has definite ties to Blondie's "Heart of Glass." All three tracks that make up the "Margerine Suite" are essential listening and are excellent examples of the breadth and poise that a mature Stereolab exhibits throughout this album.

As all great records must, Margerine Eclipse has a quick and ready hit in its coffers. "Margerine Rock" is an epic throwback, a song that would not be out of place on Emperor Tomato Ketchup, or maybe in a more rudimentary way on the manic Transient Noise Bursts With Announcements. Sadler employs a bemused monotone and finally treats us to the first intelligible morsel of English lyrics for this radio-friendly smash. Guitars and Moog are forced from the earth by a bombastic mainstream-rock beat and the track swings with a cocksure exuberance that Stereolab has been bemoaned for losing in recent years. The production is so ace that it is difficult to discern whether or not the musical chatter in the background is vocals, analog synthesizers or clanging guitar leads. Whatever it may be, the addition completes "Margerine Rock," which, in its use of both Motown and Subpop aesthetics reframed through a Stereolab filter, becomes the pivotal composition here.

There is one loss that outweighs all others on this album. The untimely death of longtime bandmate Mary Hansen looms large over Margerine Eclipse, and her backing vocal can be imagined ghost-dancing behind Sadler's in every nook and cranny. No song carries this burden better than the eulogy to this fallen friend on "Feel and Triple," where Sadler bluntly croons, "Memory, of a friend, memory/ I need to embrace/ Fallen out, fallen out, fallen/ Out of our time and space." This is an apt eulogy delivered by those left struggling with the loss of their beloved friend in a harsh and cruel world.

Somehow Stereolab has found a way to not only soldier on, but also embrace a return to the passion and brimming enthusiasm which made their early records such a delight. Margerine Eclipse upholds this epicurean ideal as the "groop" write, sing and play merrily while basking in the realization that tomorrow we may all be gone.

by Jason Korenkiewicz

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