Dots and Loops


OK—so why did Volkswagen choose this unlikely bunch to help roll out their neo/retro Beetle? You probably saw the ad—fuzzy overhead crane shot of what appears to be a yellow flower zooms and focuses to reveal the petals as a circle of shiny Beetles, which promptly do a "(s)he loves me, (s)he loves me not" and scoot out of frame, and all the while "Parsec" from this very album plays on. And then the tag line: "More power, less flower." Whoa.

Of course, it's easy to see why even marginally savvy ad execs would dig this—Stereolab probably popped up in their marketing surveys of 28-35's w/ 4 or more years of college, and "Parsec" parses the neo/retro thing to a tee: Space meets drum and bass. Plus, for the cognoscenti, you've got the irony (or whatever) of these "Marxists" going resolutely "Capitalist," and you know how 28-35's love irony (or whatever).

Fortunately, "Parsec" comes from a good home, so it's easy to forgive it for being lured by Volksmoney. "Dots and Loops" is Stereolab's fifth album proper (amidst a slew of EP's, singles, compilations, and one-offs), and it marks another step in their evolution away from Velvet Underground/My Bloody Valentine drone rock.

This is not a guitar album. This is not a verse-chorus-verse album. It's, um, intricate. It doesn't explode, like the "flower" in the Volkswagen ad—it unfolds, like a real flower.

There are familiar parts. The four movement, 18 minute, "Reflections in the Plastic Pulse" begins like a dead-ringer cousin of the Beach Boys "Let's Go Away for Awhile" (from "Pet Sounds"), and at the start of its third movement sounds like something out of the Steve Miller Band's "Book of Dreams." Which I admit is scary, but the damn thing rights itself with a whooshy bit of chamber pop sleight of hand before you can start humming "Jet Airliner" so the damage is minimal.

The politics are familiar. "We need so damn many things/ To keep our stupid lives going" goes track one ("Brakhage"), awkward sentiments and syntax that echo the band's earlier albums. But it's shot through on such a seductive minor key bass line (that ramps up a key like sunshine towards the song's end) that earnest didactics never seemed so sweet. And lo and behold, it gets better.

"Miss Modular" is a serviceable single, francophonic and punctuated by patented Stereolab "ba da ba" backing vocals. "The Flower Called Nowhere" is where "Dots and Loops" begins to reveal that it is animated by the heart as much as the mind. This is not a screed, but a knowing lament for "All the small boats/ On the water/ Going nowhere." There is no damaged syntax here—as a matter of fact, it's lyrical and elegant, with a vocal to match. And I don't think that's "flower" like in the Volkswagen ad, but rather as in someone or something that flows. Perfect.

"I yearn for romantic passion" ("Rainbo Conversation") is another sign that Stereolab have moved into brave territory here—nothing is more political than the personal, and damn right the revolution begins in the bedroom.

The album closes with "Contronatura," a title the eye wants to translate as "against nature." And this is apt, as the song calls for a quiet rebellion against nature ("You can get well/ You can heal up") and our baser natures ("Don't go to war/ Don't choose to go"). Finally, a two minute interlude of organic squishiness gives way to a disco run out, and you realize that a loop is just a dot writ large...

Doug Parker

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