If the first word Dots And Loops calls to mind is “plasticine,” the second is “yielding.” That these two concepts somehow fail to contradict one another is among the continuing mysteries about Stereolab’s fifth LP, which turns 20 today. There had always been a magisterial pomp and fanciful, irradiated sweep to the London-based group, a kitschy, Marxist pep in its genre shuffling step. Rock ‘n roll physicality undergirded all those analogue-pop charm offensives. But Stereolab arrived in a different place with Dots And Loops. It swooned; it breathed; it withdrew; it unequivocally turned off roughly 90% of the people I played it for. Bandleaders (and later, spouses) Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier aimed, it appeared, to draw a bubble-bath for the ear — a coy, cozy symphony listeners could easily disappear into.
They succeeded in large part by surrendering to musical indulgence — rich beds of marimba, synthesizer, and vibraphone, with able string and brass players sitting in — and by ceding some production work to Tortoise’s John McEntire and Mouse On Mars’ Andi Toma, musical polymaths skilled at blurring the digital lines between live performance and studio alchemy. The result was lithe, warm, sumptuous songs that shimmy between headphones, that titillate and balm even as they disassemble and reassemble themselves.
After sputtering into view and before sputtering back out, opener “Brakhage” gently purees its shiny instruments into a twitchy, percolating vamp, soft-selling anti-consumerism as it flows. “The Flower Called Nowhere” traps a Sadier/Mary Hansen lullaby inside a firmly shaken Swiss snow globe. “Refractions In The Plastic Pulse” stretches out over 18 magical, hallucinatory minutes, tilling surprising common ground between IDM, calypso, and classical. “Contronatura” teases a chiming, intimate plaint through a thicket of massed, dank nature samples into manifesto-flouting disco funk. “Parsec” — the soundtrack to an iconic, period Volkswagon spot your pro-art designer pals probably remember fondly — injects rare, sustained jolts of rhythmic panic into a playful album that lacks for them.
A miracle of Dots And Loops is that what should feel cold and remote — all those expertly played parts, manipulated and mutilated into surging movements capable of at least grazing the heartstrings — somehow sidestep the coldness these songs could have succumbed to, engendering in the process a pure warmth Stereolab hadn’t demonstrated up to this point. Some of this is compositional, of course — how companionably the horns, guitars, and effects converse on “Miss Modular,” how “Diagonal” is calibrated to simulate a marvelous, simultaneous sense of rising, falling, rushing, and ambling.
But Sadier’s voice — clear, crisp, direct, alternating between French and English — might be the ultimate fabric softener factor. Trading off with the late, lamented Hansen, Sadier is at her most Julie Andrews on Dots And Loops. Her dulcet tones counter the subtly deployed artificiality that reigns everywhere on a spiraling, florid album — one of three Stereolab LPs, alongside ripcord-yanking landmark Emperor Tomato Ketchup and art-deco fugue Cobra And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night, that I’m most inclined to reach for and turn up. There’s nothing else quite like it.