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"Instant 0 in the Universe" (Elektra)


Since the Franco-Anglican collective Stereolab started putting out albums in 1991, it has been hailed by critics and fans alike as a band of swinging, space-age, retro-pop futurists. Now, on what seems like its 9,276th release, "Instant 0 in the Universe," the group isn't doing anything to change that impression.

All the touchstones of Stereolab's previous efforts are included on this five-track EP -- the band's first release since the death of backing vocalist Mary Hansen, who was fatally struck by a truck last December. The disc teems with influences ranging from ultra-hip (a touch of Esquivel, a dash of Can, a dollop of a funky Bacharach) to the warm tones of cooing chanteuse Laetitia Sadier. In fact, they're all so intact that, at this point, it seems formulaic. What was once a mind-expanding and rhythmic polyglot of interstellar fusion and femme-fatale vocals on such earlier albums as Mars Audiac Quintet and Emperor Tomato Ketchup has become stale. The only track here that really achieves liftoff is "Microclimate," which alternates between a chiming guitar riff and a hard-pulsing drumbeat. The rest seems a bit like a retread of where Stereolab's been before, only not so interesting. It's as if the group has run around the same track so many times that it's starting to lap itself.

Sounding too much like oneself isn't necessarily a bad thing, but for a band that was once so adventurous, comfortably settling into a groove can quickly equate to being stuck in a rut. "Instant" would make a tasteful soundtrack for a dinner party or a morphine-and-absinthe bender, but not a whole lot else. A new full-length is expected next year; with any luck, Stereolab can get past being "cool" and start writing interesting music again.

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