You could compare the lyrics and music on Stereolab's new Dots and Loops with 1992's Switched On or other of their early works and conclude that the band has grown up or something. Their approach has gained subtlety over the years, and along with this has come another form of mastery. Over time, the band has let the cocksurety of its political statements diminish in favor of an increasing depth of question-asking.
Which is not to say that their work carries less power. The first line of the new album is "We need so damn many things," and this is no cry for a shopping trip. But the rest of the record lacks the dogmatic urgency of songs like 1992's "Au Grand Jour" ("Confrontation clearing the way will be opening/ Not as an end to itself, but as a beginning"). Now, lyrics are similar to the more compelling 1996 "Motoroller Scalatron": "Society is built on a bluff, built on words." Is this an evolution, a succession of stages, or merely part of a unified movement?
Stereolab are known for their mixing of Marxist and Situationist doctrine with sweet and catchy pop tunes, all over a playful, heavily electronic beat that owes much to German experimentalists like Neu! As was the case with last year's Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Dots and Loops was recorded partially in Chicago with John McEntire and members of his group, Tortoise. The remaining portion of the album was recorded in DYsseldorf, Germany, with Mouse on Mars, an ambient techno outfit.
On Dots and Loops the music takes a mellow tangent a la Music for the Amorphous Body Study Centre, Stereolab's 1995 "soundtrack" to an art installation by sculptor Charles Long. It offers very few hard edges, but it's full of complex, challenging rhythms and sound layerings, and some of their trademark divine noise, especially on tracks such as "Brakhage" (apparently a tribute to 8mm filmmaker Stan Brakhage), and "Refractions in the Plastic Pulse."
For instance, on the track "Contronatura" there is a break of sorts in the music, begun by a dripping water noise that recurs during the last third of the album. To this sound others are added: bugs chewing on something stringy in perfect rhythm; footsteps in dry grass on wet soil; a dog sneezing backward. The sounds change their relations to each other until they become the basis for the beat of the second half of the song.
As any history of their sounds would attest, Stereolab's artistic development is guided solely by their own fluid whims and interests. A year or two ago in the U.K.'s Dazed and Confused magazine, singer/keyboardist Laetitia Sadier said in an interview, "If you're constantly active, you get ideas and wanna do more, it's like a dynamic." Hence the prolific creativity of Stereolab. As listeners were instructed on 1993's Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, "If there's been a way to build it there'll be a way to destroy it/ Things are not all that out of control." The work, as always, is in progress. Listen to its movement.
-- Jill Stauffer
An authoritative list of the most influential female R&B singers of this decade would split neatly into two sections. The first part would include those singers like Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, and Whitney Houston, whose work -- flaws and excesses notwithstanding -- will likely endure, if only as cuts on those impending Best of the '90s compilations. The second half of the list is far more interesting. It includes singers whose styles became the standard, even if they didn't reap the same rewards as the aforementioned performers. Aaliyah is on this side of the ledger; without the platinum success of her Age Ain't Nothin' But a Number, we wouldn't have precocious teen-age R&B divas like Monica, Monifah, Mona Lisa, Brandy, and others. Adina Howard makes this part of the list, too. When she stuck out her big, red, spandexed butt and asked "Do You Wanna Ride?" she not only provided a female counterpoint to bad boys like Kool Keith and Luke Campbell, but paved the way for young provocateurs like Foxy Brown and L'il Kim. Then there's Deborah Cox, the twentysomething Canadian lass whose debut went multiplatinum in 1995. She was too old to feign teen-age ennui; the "been there, done that" attitude in her voice was for real. By her age, she'd already been dumped a few times, and had done some dumping of her own. She sang with the confidence of someone who had spent time figuring out who she was rather than clinging to a convenient marketing position. She was young enough to let her producers mold her, yet savvy enough to let flashes of her individuality hint at better things to come. Cox was an anomaly until Simone Hines released her self-titled debut. Now, this record makes it clear that Hines aims to follow in Cox's footsteps.
In spite of those relatively modest ambitions, Hines stumbles and falls short. She has Cox's good-girl image and a fine set of pipes too, but Hines' LP is laden with poor song selections and abysmal pacing. Things start out promisingly with "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah." Instead of either a Beatles sample or a reference to Molly Bloom's closing soliloquy in Ulysses, the track is a nifty blend of Braxton and Des'ree (the latter a now requisite reference to alternative R&B stylings). But things crumble thereafter; tracks range from dull midtempo Whitney homages to inept covers of '70s hits. Hines sings well, but unlike Cox, she doesn't devote much effort to announcing her own individuality. Curiously, the last track is "Where Do I Go From Here" (the last single from Cox's debut was "Where Do We Go From Here"). Cox knew the answer to her question; Hines, on the contrary, doesn't have a clue.
-- Martin Johnson