Stereolab: Dots and Loops

Dots and Loops

LONDON'S STEREOLAB MAY have single-handedly turned American indie ears on to the pop possibilities of '70s Kraut rock and '60s easy listening. But their influence would've amounted to nil if they didn't rock so hard. Listening to the cathartic arc of "Super-Electric" in 1992, a friend said it sounded ethereal, like the Cocteau Twins, but the beat was insistent; the song didn't float, but careened. As it turns out, Stereolab copied their relentless 4/4 drumbeat from '70s German art-rockers Neu! (check out Neu!'s "Super"). And, in a formula they would repeat and improve upon, they pumped the rhythm through vintage Moog synthesizers and organs to create a huge, sensuous throb. Over this mix, Laetitia Sadier's sing-song melodies rode the groove with her chilly French accent and stream-of-political-consciousness lyrics (which inspired the media to give the lyrics and the 'Lab the exotic label "Marxist").

Since then, Stereolab has become a kind of Talking Heads for the '90s underground. They take from the avant garde (and plenty of other gardes) to make accessible music about the meaning of modern life. And last year's Emperor Tomato Ketchup was their Remain In Light, a mini-masterpiece of raw, sprawling post-rock, with Tortoise's John McEntire playing Eno to accentuate Stereolab's increasingly gutsy impulses toward jazz and funk.

With their new album Dots and Loops, all impulses lead to one question: What happened? Recorded by guitarist/'Lab technician Tim Gane with Tortoise and German techno refugees Mouse on Mars (see their beautiful Autoditaker), Dots and Loops was spliced together entirely by looping individually recorded parts and digitally constructing them into a finished pastiche, musique concrete-style. Cool as that may sound, the results are tepid; stripped of the band's live cohesiveness, the songs just don't build up to anything.

That's not to say Dots and Loops is a total loss: Sadier's infectious mantra on the opening "Brakhage" ("We need so damn many things to keep our dazed lives going") shows why she's the vital ghost in Stereolab's machine. Live, she always looks stricken, as if kidnapped and forced onstage, and her melancholia seeps into the Muzak and won't let its sad self get towed under. (Co-vocalist Mary Hansen's counter-melodies are more intricate than ever.) The group's stylistic morphing on the 18-minute "Refractions in the Plastic Pulse" is interesting enough, as is the near drum'n'bass of "Parsec." But these experiments sound tentative--there's nothing here as memorable as last year's Fluorescences EP, or as realized as the exercises in space music on the band's side project Turn On. Breezy faux-jazz drumming and pensive horn figures make Dots and Loops great background music, but we need something a little more rock'n'roll to keep our dazed lives going.

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