Stereolab’s masterwork ‘Dots and Loops’ turns 25
For a band where drone and repetition have always been essential elements, Stereolab evolved at a rapid pace in their first decade, going from one-and-two chord analog synth jams to a complex sound that incorporated tropicalia, jazz, dance music and unusual time signatures.
The biggest leap came with Dots and Loops, their fifth album, which was released September 22, 1997. It was their second album working with producer John McEntire, following the band's previous career high point Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Here, though, McEntire introduced this fiercely analogue band to the magic of digital recording and ProTools, where one measure could be instantly looped forever, and pieces could be rearranged like blocks.
"Digital audio recording seemed like a child’s toy," said Tim Gane. "Making lots of little loops of the bass, guitar and the drum parts, not having to play everything through from beginning to end, plopping things in where you wanted them and moving things around to see how it sounded. We loved it!" Even though the album was recorded with two different producers in two different studios -- John McEntire in Chicago, and Mouse on Mars in Düsseldorf -- the magic of the new process made Dots & Loops their most cohesive sounding album probably since their debut, Peng!.
Dots and Loops also presented a sleeker, more danceable Stereolab, but in their own unique way. While they'd already made a record called Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, this was really that title's realization; groovy, futuristic and retro all at the same time, with just a million great little sonic things going on all over the place. The High Llama's Sean O'Hagan was basically a member of the group at this point and his distinctive string and brass arrangements are also a big part of the album's appeal.
This is also Stereolab's most cinematic album, with songs getting a little open-curtain intro to reveal the most widescreen sounds, be it the perfect cosmic pop of "Miss Modular," the harpsichords-and-harmonies of "The Flower Called Nowhere," the rolling bassline, lush strings and "ahhhhhh" breakdown of "Rainbow Conversation," the amazing, four-part, 17-minute "Refractions in the Plastic Pulse," or the stomping krautrock disco of album-closer "Contronatura." (The song titles, like "Brakhage" and "The Flower Called Nowhere," were also cinema references.) Even the jungle-inspired "Parsec" works and still sounds fantastic. While even the best Stereolab albums tend to run out of gas, Dots and Loops holds your attention all the way through to the end. Their masterwork.
Listen to Dots and Loops below.
Stereolab are playing all 17 minutes of "Refractions in the Plastic Pulse" on their current North American tour.