Stereolab's music is so consistent, and so consistently pretty, that it has become nearly criticism-proof; the band do what they do so completely that it's almost a matter of accepting or rejecting their music whole instead of analyzing it. But while Stereolab's mix of '50s and '60s lounge, vintage electronic music, and Krautrock may have crossed over into easy listening indie pop a few albums ago, they still can't be dismissed easily. Margerine Eclipse, the band's tenth full-length, can sound a bit like a collage of pieces from their nine other albums, but the overall effect is more retrospective than repetitive. It's arguably the most direct work Stereolab have done since Emperor Tomato Ketchup (and at just under 54 minutes, it's one of the shortest of their later albums) and it continues Sound-Dust's trend of gathering the sounds the band explored on their previous work and tweaking them slightly. All of this is to say that Margerine Eclipse is a strong album, even if the nagging feeling that the band aimed a little low with their artistic goals takes a small amount of pleasure out of listening to it. The album trades in the bright yet somehow bittersweet pop at which the group have always excelled, albeit in a more streamlined form than it's taken over the course of their past few albums. The busy beats, whimsical noises, unconventional melodies, and, of course, lovely harmonies that define Stereolab are all present and accounted for, and they're all very pretty, even if many of them are pretty similar to each other. But Margerine Eclipse's best songs are good enough that they resemble a greatest-hits collection from an alternate universe: "...Sudden Stars" is as coolly lovely as it was on the Instant 0 in the Universe EP, with its delicate, measured synth and vocal lines rising and falling in graceful arcs of sound. "Vonal Déclosion"'s twangy guitars and lush strings nod to Sean O'Hagan's involvement, and the layers of Laetitia Sadier's vocals are seamless, but on songs like this, Mary Hansen's voice is missed more than ever ("Feel and Triple" is a sweet tribute to her). "Cosmic Country Noir" is another of Margerine Eclipse's standout tracks, and indeed one of the best Stereolab songs in a long time; on paper, its percolating percussion, chiming synths and guitars, and simple lyrics about the pleasures of the country might not seem all that special, but in practice it's exceptionally beautiful.
Perhaps Margerine Eclipse's greatest accomplishment is that it isn't nearly as overcooked as some of Stereolab's other recent work. None of the songs bring the album to a halt; the closest Margerine Eclipse comes to the band's previous noodly excursions is "La Demeure," a fascinating but somewhat formless track mixing Raymond Scott-like synth sparkles with brass and unpredictable rhythmic and melodic shifts. Just as importantly, the fizzy "Margerine Rock" and "Hillbilly Motorbike," which sounds like the theme to a very stylish game show, restore some of the effortless fun that informed all of Stereolab's work before Dots and Loops. Likewise, "Bop Scotch"'s mix of surf rock and synths -- as well as the sassiest vocals from Sadier in a long while -- suggests that there's still plenty of life in Stereolab. O'Hagan's presence on the album is used judiciously, adding some warmth to the production but not indulging his own noodly tendencies either. Margerine Eclipse's final track, "Dear Marge," is heavily influenced by O'Hagan's work, both with the High Llamas and his previous collaborations with Stereolab. Its languid guitars and silky vocals threaten to slide off into a blissful haze, but then the band reprises the surprisingly convincing disco interlude they introduced on Instant 0 in the Universe's "Mass Riff." It would've been nice to hear that part of the song developed into a full-fledged track, but it still makes the song one of the freshest on the album. Margerine Eclipse can't really be called a return to form since Stereolab didn't really deviate from the form to begin with, but it still offers a reinvigorated sound that rewards the patience of fans who have stuck with the band this long. ~ Heather Phares