Printed in teeny, tiny lettering on the back of challenging Franco-Anglo ensemble Stereolab's new EP Instant O in the Universe are the words "Mary, thinking about you." Last December, Stereolab's billow-voiced vocalist and keyboardist Mary Hansen died in a bike-riding accident. Although her death was tragic, it did have some poetic irony to it -- Stereolab's music has always sounded like the ideal soundtrack for biking through the English countryside.
Hansen left behind a devastated group of musicians, including fellow singer Laetitia Sadier, who handles all vocals for this latest EP. It may seem at first that the group's subtle change in style here is linked to Hansen's loss, but it may actually have more to do with the band's decision to cut ties with Chicago producer Jim O'Rourke. Instant O, which was recorded, appropriately enough, in Instant O studios in France, is not weighed down by the background clutter that bogged down previous releases like The First of the Microbe Hunters and Sound-Dust, which frequently geeked out with instrumentation -- glockenspiel? Pianette?
This time around, the number of participating musicians has been whittled down to five from nine, which gives the disc a jaunty sound more along the lines of earlier LPs like Peng and Switched On. The band particularly flourishes on "Good Is Me," which features the bold refrain "I am good/Therefore good is me" and serves as a quintessential example of Stereolab's elevator-music sound. Sadier does a splendid job of creating Downy-soft vocal layering as the track starts off in an expected direction with some keyboards and a little Moog here and there.
And then, suddenly, there's a breakdown, and the rest of "Good Is Me" kinda sounds like a Phish jam session. It's a pattern Stereolab falls into on all five songs on Instant O. "Mass Riff" starts off sounding like the Talking Heads and then bursts into the Bee Gees. The first half of "Microclimate" sounds like it could have been used for background music in a French Pac-Man game -- and then it transitions toward a waltzy serenade.
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Nothing can replace Hansen's velveteen singing voice, but if Sadier and band co-founder Tim Gane can continue to make experimental but breezy albums like Instant O, then the eclectic spirit of Stereolab will remain intact.