February 12, 2004

I Can't Believe It's Not Better

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A sticker on the cover of the new Stereolab album reads, “One of Pop’s 50 Most Influential Bands — Spin magazine.” This is interesting since the average reader of that magazine (fresh from confessing at their dashboard shrine to “the indie cool”) has likely never even heard anything by the

“influential” band. So, how does a band so informed by fringe music become in turn respected progenitors of pop? Answer: Stereolab are and always have been integrationists. Their song “John Cage Bubblegum” has served in a way as their career thesis. To take krautrock (Neu! and Can) and retro-futuristic lounge-pop (Serge Gainsbourg, Martin Denny), mix it up in a visionary blender, and sprinkle some saccharine French vocals on top is a formula that retains its charm even after ten full-length albums.

As per usual, Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier’s songwriting is not the focus here. Instead, it’s the lush arrangements of texture and sound. Lest we forget all the alluring Stereolab dichotomies: Their melodies are oblique and Marxist, and yet they never fail to enchant and mesmerize. They are a pop band with an avant-garde bent; or maybe an art-rock band suffused with pop hooks. They bask in the image of vintage, the air of la contemporaire, and the couture of the future. And despite all these paradoxes, they still manage to avoid sounding scattered. Stereolab is, if nothing else, a band with a honed craft.

Of course, one thing missing from Margerine Eclipse is Mary Hansen, who played numerous instruments and sang copious “la la la”‘s that helped define the Stereolab sound for the greater part of the band’s career. (Hansen was killed by a truck while riding her bicycle in London in 2002.) Her honey-dipped vocal counterpoint is sorely missed behind Sadier, whose voice is multitracked on some songs to fill in the gaps. All in all, though, the band recovers admirably from the loss. There is no apparent overcompensation to fill the new void, leaving an eerie openness in which some fans familiar with Hansen’s contributions will almost hear her ghost haunting these recordings, echoing in her absence. (“Feel and Triple” is a fitting tribute to their fallen bandmate.)

As has been the case for some time with the band, Stereolab’s enlisted “satellite” members provide many of Margerine’s less predictable moments. The trademark Farfisa, percolating analog synths, and rhythmic French turns of phrase on the opening “Vonal D