Few bands in the canon of rock music can argue to be as inimitable as Stereolab. In a society that rewards artists for their assimilation to the styles and sounds of others, it is rare to find an act that so firmly resists replication or is influenced by outside stimulus. Many have tried, hell there is a whole label out in Chicago built around the challenge, but none have been able to capture the joy and exuberance that is so essential to the trademark Stereolab sound. The magnitude of their contribution was put under the microscope with 2002’s comprehensive ABC Music: The Radio 1 Sessions which collected 32 live performances recorded over the years by the band for BBC 1. What is illustrated by this collection is the refreshing approach to sonic arrangements, songwriting, melody and harmony that Stereolab have upheld as their mission since day one. The release of their tenth full-length album Margerine Eclipse marks Stereolab’s first album in more than a decade without guitarist and vocalist Mary Hansen who passed away in a tragic accident last year. Fret not though, because the elemental nature of the band remains intact. Finally breaking free of the jazz-infused meandering that plagued their past three albums, Stereolab returns to their winning strengths and, as a result, created a more focused and dynamic pop-oriented record.
Margerine Eclipse is the product of a mature band in the midst of a joyous celebration of life; brimming with a confidence and panache that is distinctly their own. This is without question their finest hour since the classic Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Stereolab has effortlessly discarded the dense and difficult song structures that plagued their last three albums and slipped back in time to reacquaint themselves with their ideas on harmony from Mars Audiac Quintet and the endless possibilities of band dynamics within the pop framework as heard on Emperor Tomato Ketchup.
From the opening panned drum introduction on first track “Vonal Decision” it is understood that we are being called back to planet lounge for an inspired return to form. All of the signature Stereolab traits are evidenced in the opening minute: the bass grooves, the Moog soars, guitars ring and electronics skitter against the percussion while Laetitia Sadier pines effortlessly in French. No longer controlled by a distant sense of cool, there is an urgency in Sadler’s vocals and in Tim Gane’s guitar playing that has been missing since the detached electronica of Dots and Loops.
“Margerine Rock” is an epic throwback to 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 dare to be missed 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 Sub Pop aesthetics reframed through a Stereolab filter becomes the pivotal composition on this record.
Tomfoolery and wordplay also remain a constant in the Stereolab lexicon on Margerine Eclipse as both “Margerine Melodie” and “Dear Marge” reference the album title and the explosive “Margerine Rock”. Although it is a completely different song there are elements of “Margerine Melodie” that feel as if it is a remix or even a derivative work of “Margerine Rock”. Bass and keys pulse like the title track from a 1970s John Travolta film to provide the main rhythm while keyboards and guitars flit in and out at breakneck speed to support the simple fills programmed into a drum machine. In a rare turn, Sadler sings slightly behind the band making her English lyrics elliptical and difficult to pluck from the rest of the congested late night dance floor fare.
In contrast album closer “Dear Marge” is 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 a 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 benchmarks of the breadth and poise that a mature Stereolab exhibits throughout this record. Whereas over the past few albums these tracks would have meandered and dragged on for minutes, here the goal is accomplished succinctly in roughly two minutes per segment.
One of the most amazing revelations about Stereolab over the years is the way that they insulate themselves from current musical trends. They have consistently nurtured their own musical ideas and dismissed a plethora of movements since their inception. In brief, they have dismissed grunge, Brit Pop, IDM, alt.country, and the garage rock blues revival in favor of their own notions on the essence of popular music. Ten albums on you would think that this blatant disregard for trends would start to wear on their creativity or at the very least expose them as creatures of extreme hubris. Even rock icons like U2 and R.E.M. have fallen victim to keeping up with trends from time to time, producing works that lean heavily on current styles or fixations.
Somehow Stereolab has continued to exist in the eye of the storm and the only real point of debate is not about cultural relevance, but rather where Margerine Eclipse ranks within their own catalogue. Given the vitality, creativity and maturity exhibited, Margerine Eclipse has earned its rightful place at the peak of their recording careerand deserves mention alongside The Groop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, Mars Audiac Quintet and other timeless Stereolab albums.
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// Notes from the Road
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