November 1997 Reviews
Stereolab: Dots and Loops
"Dots and Loops" is so far the most integrated and accomplished album from Stereolab. I have to admit that most of this recent easy listening/lounge boom has left me cold; I wasn't a fan of this type of music but something in Stereolab raised my interest a couple of years ago, maybe it was their twiddling with vintage analogue electronics, and now I'm happily converted. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Stereolab doesn't just be content in creating pseudo-ironic pastiches of the triumphs of crimplene glory days gone by; instead they synthesize and crystallize all these diverse elements - lounge, easy listening, cocktail music, even Krautrock - into something new. The band being too smart for being just trendy retro-fitted copycats, the electronics are incorporated as the essential part of music, and of all their "post-rock" contemporaries Stereolab have most successfully managed to integrate all the elements seamlessly to their tunes. Pulsating rhythms are interweaving with rich orchestrations, guided by Laetitia Sadier's chirpy yet melancholic voice (which I would under some other circumstances just find irritating). Don't let being "easy" lead you astray.
'Brakhage' starts with analogue twiddling noise, whirling maelstrom of vibes accompanying. "We need so damn many things to keep our lives going." The single 'Miss Modular' with its trumpet and optimistic mood goes somewhere to the Doors/Ray Manzarek cocktail-jazz territory. "The Flower Called Nowhere" is waltzing, Stereolab at its most poetic: "All the small boats on the water / going nowhere / Is it true that none of them, will ever / break free and sail?". 'Diagonals' starts with a pounding beat box, before the rhythm then twists into something more irregular, mixed with Tortoise's John McEntire's marimba alongside lush, rich arrangements with brasses. 'Prisoner of Mars' with its abstract lyrics ("Searching for new ways of laughing") is discreetly insistent, and makes me feel like I'm watching some old French movie. 'Rainbo Conversation' takes us to the summer sailing in archipelago, and reminds me of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" with its light, swinging rhythm, added to Beach Boys' vocal harmonies and buzzing analogue. 17-and-half-minute "Refractions in the Plastic Pulse" is most reminiscent of those instrumental songs of Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" (which was in its turn inspired by Martin Denny); tempo changes and different parts remind also of Tortoise; morse code beeping leads into the third part which is purely electronic; suddenly juxtaposing strings (as in "violins") to electronics. At the end Laetitia's voice slowed down becomes genderless. 'Parsec' is insistent, fast-moving, with its origins in French chanson tradition shining through, and the brasses worth of Gil Evans' arrangements in Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain" - total electronic fantasmagoria. 'Ticker-Tape of the Unconscious' - (these song titles!) floating song structures.'Contronatura' - Mouse Of Mars' murky electronics, quietly uplifting, in the middle of song psychedelic musique concrète noisery after which it turns to a near march-like finale ("This is the future of an illusion / Aggressive culture of despotism / Living fantasy of the immortal / The reality of an animal").
Before Stereolab, Laetitia Sadier and Tim Gane paid their dues in the British agit-popsters McCarthy, and you can still hear echoes of political conscience every now and then (for example, the anti-war stance of "Contronatura"), but in Stereolab's case (and maybe for the good of a listener) they prefer to have their revolution on purely artistic terms. Unless you're Bertolt Brecht working with Kurt Weill, music that becomes merely a vehicle for putting out a message is more often than not doomed to fail (does anyone remember the Redskins?). Whenever the agitator overcomes the artist, art always fails. The often-touted truism (and cliché) is that art should transcend prevailing social realities. In a sense all great art creates, or should create, a revolution in one's own experience. (So, the cynic asks, we can't change our social reality, only our immediate experience to it?) Opposing each other are the old-fashioned(?) idea of the artist's conscience or social responsibility and the thought of an artist as a mediator between this world and the ageless realm of pure aesthetic pleasure. But, "ho-hum", may our street-wise hipster yawn here, so after this pseudo-analytical and somehow pointless detour I just try to find some kind of conclusion for my arguments of what makes Stereolab's music so great. After all, all good music works - and should work - on a purely emotional level, and no excessive amount of intellectualising can do it any good.
This music is thought out, written, composed, played, sung, arranged and produced to the minutest detail; there is not one part that would be missing nor is there anything that would be too much, in the way of over-producing. Phil Spector would have been proud of Stereolab's dense sonic textures in which it always amazes how effortless they can make it all sound. What's great about Stereolab is that, in spite of all their intellectual aspirations, they manage to avoid the trap of being self-consciously "arty" or pretentious musos. Honestly. The songs hold in them a sense of mystery, the abstractness of fleeting moments that you are not sure you can ever completely understand or grasp to but can't help being deeply affected by.
Copyright © 1997 Erkki Rautio