For one brief moment there in the mid-’90s, Stereolab was locked in mortal combat with Pavement and Yo La Tengo for the title of Best Band in the College-Rock Universe. Remember? The former was a group of fuddy-duddy guitar-rock traditionalists by comparison, and the latter managed to avoid that label only by wholeheartedly adopting the ’Lab’s cool sonic sheen. Besides, Stereolab’s breakthrough LP, 1996’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup, really was a doozy: a swirling, percolating, and eminently danceable masterpiece that combined three parts Human League hook with one part Kraftwerk hum. In other words, it got the indie-rock/electronica formula just right—as opposed to countless others who not only reversed that perfect ratio but also made the bassist play through a blown subwoofer.

The little groop from London very nearly won the battle for indie hearts and minds, too. In the five years before Emperor Tomato Ketchup hit the racks, Stereolab had already issued three proper long-players, a couple of compilations, and innumerable singles and EPs—all of which had become essential hipster purchases. But then a not-so-funny thing happened: Bedazzled by their success, founders Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier apparently decided that anything the band committed to DAT was worthy of release. With the help of ’Lab assistants such as John McEntire (of Tortoise fame) and Sean O’Hagan (of High Llamas infamy), the dynamic duo proceeded to crank out one kinda decent but gee-haven’t-we-been-here-before disc after another. Dots and Loops, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, Sound-Dust—each was full of pretty little wheel-spinners that left you waiting (and waiting and waiting) for the catchy parts to emerge from the immaculate production.

Maybe the 2002 death of co-vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Mary Hansen got Gane and Sadier thinking a little harder about their legacy. The new Margerine Eclipse, their first post-Hansen LP, finds the ’Lab trying very hard indeed to get back to where it once belonged. Amazingly, it mostly succeeds. The disc opens with “Vonal Declosion,” one of the group’s patented, can’t-miss swirlathons, in which Simon Johns thrums out a rubbery bass line, Sadier offers up some love-cat cooing in French, and a good time is obviously had by all. String-streaked and funky, the track is a perfect restatement of the Stereolab MO: lounge-pop melody-making combined with retrofuturistic keyboards and a frenetic rhythmic attack that sounds lifted from a choice Esquivel outtake. Infectious, to say the least—not to mention the best thing to emerge from the Stereolab since “Metronomic Underground,” Emperor Tomato Ketchup’s jaw-dropping opener.

It’s no slam to say that nothing else on Margerine Eclipse quite rises to that lofty level. Indeed, it’s high praise to say that a small handful of the disc’s tunes actually manage to get kinda close. “Bop Scotch,” for example, features a so-clever-it’s-dumb title, but it’s redeemed by chiming chord changes borrowed from (I kid you not) Free’s “All Right Now.” (Lest you worry, know that the tune’s intentionally cheesy keyboard riffs and dinka-dinka video-game percussion make it safe for indie-kid consumption, too.) “Feel and Triple” is another keeper, a spacious soundscape decked out with synth squiggles, arpeggiated guitar lines, and, early on, a low-in-the-mix beat-keeper that sounds like a battery-operated respirator with five minutes of juice left. Longtime ’Lab aficionados will appreciate the way “Margerine Rock” sounds plugged into the same vintage equipment the band used to record its early work, and set-closer “Dear Marge” points in a vaguely new direction for this band of analog-synth freaks: The track features a “Ready, one, two, three, four, five, six” count-in and rides mainly on a strummed acoustic guitar. The melody wouldn’t sound out of place around a campfire, either.

Still, as you might expect from a band with a track record of working its fetching formula to death, not everything on Margerine Eclipse is completely worthy of disc space on your iPod. Despite its title, “La Demeure” features lame, sloganeering lyrics in English. They sound as if they’ve been badly translated, to boot: “People are pressed/Liberties crushed,” Sadier sings over her band’s requisite keyboard surge. “Shouldn’t it resound/Cry of our soul?” “Need to Be” is similarly tepid, a kandy-kolored wind-up toy of a song that doesn’t wind down fast enough. And though “…Sudden Stars” does at least whip up a tuneful racket—it’s a lovely smear of harpsichord, acoustic guitar, and computerized breakbeats—the track could definitely use a more engaging melody. Even Sadier sounds as if she can’t wait to get the next one: “Hugs and smiles/Sweet kisses/Movements/Towards me/Embrace…/Tenderness/Velvet skin.”

And who could blame her? The next one just happens to be “Cosmic Country Noir,” the album’s second-best number. Don’t be fooled by the title, which makes it sound as if the band has been reading way too many record reviews: The emphasis here is on the “cosmic.” The tune opens with a scale-descending sequencer riff and ultimately explodes into a melodic cacophony of jangly, upper-register guitars and the kind of haunted-chanteuse vocalizing that made Stereolab the band of choice for alternateens everywhere back in the proverbial day. “Gone the torments/Uncertainties,” Sadier sings oh-so-self-referentially. “Place where we finally/Agree.”

Let’s hope. With most members of the alternative nation now carefully ensconced inside graduate programs or, God forbid, tap-tapping away blankly in cubicles of their own, the band’s timing could hardly be better for picking up a whole new generation of fanboys and -girls. Part rear-guard action, part proof that the band hasn’t completely exhausted its reservoir of fine ideas, Margerine Eclipse is the kind of record that might finally take Stereolab back to its future. CP