The 2000s have not been especially kind to Stereolab. Their first album of the decade, 2001's Sound-Dust, marked a slight return to form but was still overrun by the indulgence that made their post-Dots and Loops material something of a chore to hear. And while 2002's ABC Music: The Radio 1 Sessions was a great collection of live performances from their heyday, it inadvertently ended up highlighting how much passion and innovation had dissipated out of the band's music since the mid-'90s. Worst of all, of course, was the tragic death of longtime member and friend Mary Hansen in late 2002. With the loss of Hansen, the stagnancy surrounding their music, and the proliferation of Stereolab side projects -- including Laetitia Sadier's Monade and Simon Johns' Imitation Electric Piano -- it wouldn't have been surprising if the group decided to throw in the towel. Instant 0 in the Universe, however, is an attempt to shore up against these difficulties, and while it's not as vital as the EPs with which Stereolab made its name in the early '90s, it does sound more engaged than the band's late-'90s work. Most immediately noticeable is the EP's back-to-basics sound and feel. With the exception of the slightly noodly absurdism of "Good Is Me," none of the tracks indulge in the studio navel-gazing of their recent albums. This is due probably to the EP's quick turnaround: it was recorded in spring 2003 and released that fall. This stripped-down feel recalls the Stereolab of old: "...Sudden Stars," with its winding, sparkling melody, cascading vocals, and jazzy but kinetic beat, feels almost like a throwback to the Dots and Loops era; "Mass Riff," which moves from a bouncy fuzz to vocodered disco, could be a descendent of Emperor Tomato Ketchup; and the lovely "Microclimate" might as well be a kissing cousin to the Gallic robo-romanticism of Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements. Hansen is missed, particularly on a song like "Jaunty Monty and the Bubbles of Silence" (if a song title could distill what went wrong with Stereolab in the later part of the band's career, this would be it), where you can hear the parts she probably would have sung. For the most part, though, the band carries on without her well -- almost too well; the mood of slightly whimsical detachment in Stereolab's music is so controlled that at this point, it's barely a mood at all. Neither a retreat nor a leap forward, Instant 0 in the Universe is pleasant and nowhere near as trying as some of the group's recent work, but it's one more Stereolab release that is equally difficult to dislike or fully embrace.
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares