Dots and Loops stands as Stereolab’s most enduring record, one defined by its functional diversity and infinite appropriateness.
For some hardcore fans, Dots and Loops marks the beginning of Stereolab’s transition into softcore. While their outstanding Emperor Tomato Ketchup established their reputation a serious force in alternative English music, Dots and Loops brought Stereolab to the Billboard top 200. Jazz and lounge sensibilities replaced noise and aggression. Relaxation replaced tension. While the album was well-received at the time, 20 years later it’s turned into an important signifier; it’s the barrier between Stereolab’s erstwhile incarnation as post-rock’s vanguard and its more recent, middling impressions of former glory. If Emperor Tomato Ketchup is king of the canon, Dots and Loops holds a more dubious place as Stereolab’s last great record.
Dots and Loops is more than just the herald of doom. It is the album through which many Stereolab fans discover themselves. I got to the album via Beirut, whose lead singer listed the album as one of his greatest teenage influences. This was back when I piddled my way through college lectures by silently torrenting every album anyone ever mentioned to me. It was uncommon that any of these records would receive so much as a cursory listen, most condemned to slowly rot on my pre-SSD drive. Aimlessly floating through dozens of albums a day, I rarely gave even spectacular records much chance to break through the sonic haze of my then-compulsive music hoarding.
Then I chanced upon “Brakhage,” still one of the all-time best album openers. Beginning with the synth, already mid-disintegration, the collapsing noise is overcome by quick, high-hat driven drums and an endlessly repeated, ear-wormy xylophone riff, somehow not kitschy. All this is intriguing enough before we even get to Stereolab’s true calling card, Lætitia Sadier softly crooning in our ear, “We need so damn many things/ to keep our lives going.” Over and over again, like a lover’s whisper, the soft bits of the song layer upon each other—each individual component understated and undramatic—until, by the song’s end, a dozen different musical mechanisms churn together. The synth, percussion, brass and vocal rounds all meld to create a somehow functional whole. As a 20 year-old, it was sexy, socialist and effortlessly cool. There was the sense that these songs had just poured out of Sadier and co-frontperson Tim Gane. Most importantly, it inspired an insatiable hunger for Stereolab.
In 1997, the primary function of Dots and Loops was to open Stereolab for mass consumption. It is the rare album that is equally experimental and accessible, jam-packed with inescapable hooks. Consider “Diagonals,” history’s sexiest and most relaxing iteration of Marxism. Anchored by a skittering drum track and soft guitar groove, the French-language lyrics about the bourgeoisie and material dependence fade into a hypnotic rhythm, equally suitable as background music as a text for intellectualized close reading. This duality typifies the album: while complexly composed—often comprising multiple vocal melodies, atypical time signatures and complicated instrumental countermelodies—no songs grow oppressive or overwrought. Dots and Loops represents a step back from the excess of earlier Stereolab records and the glitzy hedonism of ‘90s pop music in general. This is a primary component of the album’s success: for American audiences, Dots and Loops was exotic without being alienating.
Dots and Loops stands as Stereolab’s most enduring record, one defined by its functional diversity and infinite appropriateness. Which other album could be played with such equal success in the bedroom, at the bar or on the dance floor? Sadier’s singing, both seductive and radical, anchors wonderfully lopsided groove tracks “Parsec” with its racing 5/4 drums and retro-porno synth, constantly on the verge of spilling over its own edge. Or maybe Dots and Loops could score a leftist political thriller, moored by the album’s closer “Contranatura” which implores us: “My dearest friend/don’t go to war/don’t choose to go.” While Stereolab’s music was never overtly political, the music was besieged by optimistic, full-throated support for utopic socialist ideology, radical in the ‘90s and still somewhat exotic today, that drove seemingly relaxed songs into the ephemeral world of musical intellectualism.
This lack of definition, perhaps, is Dots and Loops’ greatest weakness. While Emperor Tomato Ketchup feels specifically rooted to a time and place, Dots and Loops floats as carelessly as the songs that comprise it, each more valuable as part of a whole than an individual single. That many of Stereolab’s later albums would fall into this shapeless hole, for some, incriminates Dots and Loops. Its success was unsustainable and its draw irreproducible. History, however, shouldn’t punish an album for its inimitability. Almost 20 years out from its release, Dots and Loops remains a seminal album from a legendary band. So what if it’s the last great album. It’s still great.