Stereolab: Dots and Loops
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
On September 23, 1997, I drove to the record store in downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan, to pick up the new Stereolab album. I was a casual fan at that point: the first record of theirs I’d heard was Emperor Tomato Ketchup a year prior, and I’d bought Transient Random Noise-Bursts with Announcements earlier that summer. And though both were solid and even eye-opening to an extent (the latter was pretty much my intro to krautrock), my 18-year-old indie-rock heart was still devoted to Pavement, and neither quite matched up to the best of Stephen Malkmus.
But then I came home and put on Dots and Loops in my dim dorm room, filling the pale walls with warm horns, skittering beats and all kinds of tra-la-la, and suddenly everything fell into place. In the next few months, I swooned over it non-stop. Over winter break I waited for a bus in St. Louis, in my new corduroy coat, and sang fragments of melodies in the cold air. I put it on at a party, only to frown when the 5/4 rhythm of “Parsec” seemed to puzzle drunks attempting to dance. When it came on at Blake’s Diner, where all the vegans congregated after midnight, I lit up. My friend Rachel asked me what it was, and I stammered, “Only, like, the best album ever.”
And so for the next few years, Stereolab supplanted all contenders as my favorite group, leading me to acquire most of their other releases and to do such foolish things as post for the first time on a fan forum and spend $30 on an import copy of Colossal Youth by Young Marble Giants just because Laetitia Sadier said she fancied it. Only recently has my fandom subsided.
Nearly ten years later, the band’s overall critical reputation seems secure, not least because rock critics love acts who recontextualize genres and pay homage to hip forebears (from Neu! to Françoise Hardy) the way Stereolab has over its career. And yet the album that won me over has a curious standing among fans. At the time of its release, Dots and Loops was received warmly (it finished 28th in the Pazz and Jop poll), although the accolades were not as uniformly strong as they were for Emperor Tomato Ketchup, which now appears to be the canonical choice.
But there is also a sizeable contingent of fans who point to Dots and Loops as the beginning of the band’s downfall. It’s the first album, after all, to completely ditch the motorik drone that had been Stereolab’s stock in trade since they began. True, Emperor Tomato Ketchup had started eliminating the wall of noise and had tackled beatnik math-funk with tracks like “Percolator,” but the title cut has just as much single-chord bliss as their early material. On Dots and Loops, what predominates is lush lounge textures with coolly clinking vibes and sweetly shuffling beats—for anyone who’s too attached to the overdriven crunch of “Crest,” it’s an understandable source of frustration.
Nine times out of ten, however, the blame for this shift is directed at Tortoise drummer John McEntire, who produced seven of the album’s ten songs and, as one of the architects of Chicago post-rock, must be responsible for the hollow pretension supposedly inherent in each of Mary Hansen’s background sighs. Ignoring for a moment that McEntire worked on half of Emperor Tomato Ketchup, I’d like to propose that there’s entirely too much made of new producers’ influence on established bands. I can only imagine how tired Jim O’Rourke is of explaining to reporters that most of the avant-garde moves on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot were Jeff Tweedy’s idea. When critics like Jim DeRogatis or (occasional Stylus contributor) Ned Raggett complain about McEntire’s role on Stereolab recordings, they sometimes act as though he fooled or bullied the band into embracing his low-key style, rather than entertain the possibility that the band sought him out specifically to move in this direction. I’ll readily admit that McEntire’s fussy production can lean toward the anemic: witness the latest Tortoise record. But as far as I’m concerned, Stereolab never took a noticeable dip until 2001’s Sound-Dust, the first release that felt like the band was on auto-pilot, and though McEntire was on the deck for that one, I’m confident that he wasn’t the one to sink it.
At the same time, the backlash against Dots and Loops has often made me rethink the album that once seemed like the pinnacle of modern music for me. After all, I was 18, and one’s judgment at that age, caught between youthful passion and mature appreciation, is often clouded by serendipity.
But the fact of the matter is, I still do listen to Dots and Loops, and it’s still rewarding. In fact, another reason why that “beginning of the end” nonsense grates is that Dots and Loops feels so different even from the albums that followed it. Blogger Josh Kortbein, the only other person I know who rates the album as highly as I do, has speculated that his love stems from it being the “only Stereolab record ... that has beats. Beats, in the rap sense. Or the dance sense, or electronic music sense.” He continues: “This doesn’t so much have to do with electronic percussion, drum machines, etc. ... It has more to do with the nature of the rhythms, and whether or not there’s a sense that melodic and harmonic instruments hold sway, whether they’re dominant, or whether it all seems to be contributing to the rhythm.”
Kortbein is right to focus on rhythm as the component that makes Dots and Loops stand out, but he doesn’t extend this idea far enough. I don’t think he is suggesting that the beats on other Stereolab albums are any less prominent; as far as I can see, the difference is that “Jenny Ondioline” and “Metronomic Underground” use rhythm in a linear fashion, whereas Dots and Loops treats it circularly. To clarify, lots of the band’s work, and especially the early stuff, is devoted to a groove, but it’s a straight, immediate, almost mechanical 4/4; you bob your head as it pushes forward, like a car zooming down an empty highway or a train rapidly clicking past each rail. Whereas on Dots and Loops more than half the songs are in some other time signature (variations on 5/4 more common even than variations on 3/4), and even the songs that aren’t tend to hold back from emphasizing any particular beat too strongly, which creates a peculiar decentering effect. The rhythm is urgent and cyclical, but you’re not always sure where the cycle starts; rather than tilting ahead, you let yourself float, as though in a whirlpool.
In fact, listening to Dots and Loops often feels like being submerged in dark ocean waters: the bass deep and prowling, the organs gurgling, the strings like light shimmering in from above. I’ve always valued this below-the-surface sensation in music; I hear it in Luomo’s The Present Lover, too: a kind of intimacy that doesn’t depend on spareness. Since it’s such an anomaly in Stereolab’s catalogue, it’s tempting to credit co-producer and Mouse on Mars mastermind Andi Toma for this sound, since it’s the only album of theirs he had a hand in. But the fact that he only worked on three tracks, and not even the ones you might expect (after the drum ‘n’ bass flirtations on MoM’s Autoditacker, I was positive that “Parsec” was his) only reinforces my skepticism about the producer as auteur.
What that means, though, is that the band might be capable of another putting together another Dots and Loops on their own. I’m obviously speaking partially out of sentimental attachment, and I know that as I get older, truly revelatory experiences with music become few and far between. But in light of Stereolab’s recent water-treading, I’d consider it a welcome retreat.
By: John M. Cunningham
Published on: 2006-07-25