[28 March 2002]
Pop the new Chemical Brothers album, Come With Us into your CD player, and let the genie out of the bottle. A flurry of soundtrack strings plays and a booming voice commands “Come with us / And leave your Earth behind . . . Behold / They are coming back” Then those big beats start pumping in earnest and you are falling down the rabbit hole. You’re taking the ride, and you may not be back in time for dinner.
If you’ve taken the ride with the Chems before you know you’re in good hands. Unlike many of their electronica brethren, the Chemical Brothers have always displayed a good understanding of rock music and of song structures. Even their early albums, like Exit Planet Dust demonstrated an ability to combine and juxtapose sounds and energies in a way that created a total experience rather than simply a collection of samples held together with some beats and electronic blips. Then you have the their psychedelic leanings. The Brothers have understood the potentially psychedelic nature of electronic music since they started out. Many of today’s sampling whippersnappers couldn’t tell a Tangerine Dream groove from a Can track, but you can bet these groovy druids can. By 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole they were mining the Timothy Leary groove seriously on tracks like “Lost in the K-Hole” and “It Doesn’t Matter”, which sampled Lothar and the Hand People, a group built around a theremin. The album concluded with “The Private Psychedelic Reel” which, while flawed, certainly signaled their intentions. They also understood the power of vocals and have featured guest appearances on every album from singers such as Noel Gallagher, Bernard Sumner, and Hope Sandoval. Then there’s sweet soul sister Beth Orton who has successfully collaborated with the Chems on the amazing tracks “Where Do I Begin” and “Alive Alone”. Orton combined electronic experiments and acoustic folk soul convincingly on her debut disc Trailer Park and has proven a durable and skilled songwriter, but no “Best of Beth” set would be complete without her Chemical collaborations.
Basically, the Chemical Brothers are rock fans with an incredible album collection who want to share their favorite moments with dancefloor denizens. It is this deeper resonance with the sounds of popular culture from the last four decades that gives the Chemical Brothers their edge and makes them cool even among those who aren’t particularly into electronica and dance music. Rock and roll meets acid house-that has defined the Chemical Brothers sound from their early days as DJs at Jeff Barrett’s “Heavenly Social” straight through Exit Planet Dust, Dig Your Own Hole, and “Setting Sun”.
On their last outing, 1999’s Surrender the Brothers shifted into a less muscular, more synth-driven sound, recalling their forebears Kraftwerk and other ‘70s/‘80s influences. Though I personally found the single “Hey Boy Hey Girl” to be a pretty annoying anthemic stomp, Surrender had much to recommend it, including Bernard Sumner’s Joy Division-esque vocalizing on “Out of Control”. Still, it seemed that the Chemical boys had reached an impasse and it was far from clear whether they would head toward a more synthesized electro-dance sound or return to the more rock-oriented muscle of their best work.
In a way they’ve managed to do both, but the beats are definitely back. The opener, “Come With Us” locks into the beats and tribal boy chants of Exit Planet Dust, throwing in synthesizer arpeggios and the aforementioned “genie” voice to create a groove that should have no problems filling dance floors from Manchester to Ibiza. Likewise “It Began In Afrika”, a kind of electronic exotica where the various percussion (both sampled and real), big cat sounds, and travelogue narrator sample combine to create an ersatz aural safari a la Les Baxter. The polyrhythmic percussion flights (timbales and bongos) are like a cross between a Sanatana concert and the Grateful Dead parking lot. Overall, though, the track is strong and trades on the aggressive Chemical beats sound while throwing a new angle into the mix that is sure to delight listeners and dancers. From there we spin into the funky “Galaxy Bounce” which again is vintage Chemical territory. The new disc is off to an amazing start, recalling the group’s best work.
You expect a changeup on “Star Guitar” and the intro, with some stuttering handclaps and synthesizer noise promises it, but when the beat hits you are once again in familiar territory. This is a bit of a mellow track despite the strong beat, and demonstrates very well the adage that it is what goes on top of the beats that makes a dance or electronic track what it is. “Hoops” turns out to be the change we were looking for, with its weird Association sample (“Round Again”) spun into a minor key acoustic guitar calliope that morphs into a groove not unlike something from Orbital’s Middle of Nowhere.
The second half of Come With Us takes us deep into space (or our own minds, whichever you prefer), opening with the nervous “My Elastic Eye”, with it’s “Tic Tac Nocturne” sample recalling, in an updated way, the opening of Pink Floyd’s “Time”. It opens up to some fierce bass synth riffing and an ostinato figure that plays over it, underlining the element of time that seems to be the track’s overriding theme. This sets up the complete chill out of “The State We’re In”, a gorgeous piece of hippy balladry that reunites the Brothers with Beth Orton. Orton delivers the song with her trademark Britfolk delivery punctuated by a leaning on blue notes that creates a real organic feel even as you’re being tripped out into the far reaches of the universe. “We like working with people who have talents we don’t have” says Tom Rowlands (the spectacled Brother). “They take the track away, get a feeling from it, and it becomes their own song.” “The State We’re In” ends by bubbling into a nice dance beat that segues easily into the hash house disco of “Denmark”. It’s a fierce dance track and nothing less. “Pioneer Skies” opens with what could be a Syd Barrett-era Floyd harpsichord motif, and indeed we seem to get firmly into Floyd territory as various sounds (including more Dark Side of the Moon-style clock sounds) are fed over a bubbling floor-tom driven drum track. The track becomes increasingly epic, though, and manages to recall some type of Pete Townshend opus by the end, something intended for Lighthouse or Quadrophenia.
Of course, the final track on Chemical Brothers CDs (“Alive Alone”, “The Private Psychedelic Reel”, “Dream On”) is usually something major, something that either takes the whole disc to another level or provides a big surprise, and “The Test” is no exception. Richard Ashcroft comes in to provide energetic, acerbic vocals that rail against a huge beat and a synthesized wall of whirring sound that seems to drop straight into some abyss. The track ends with Ashcroft demanding “Did I pass / The acid test / Did I pass / The acid test”, once again reminding the listener of the Chemical Brothers’ complete understanding of the dynamics of the truly psychedelic experience.
Some folks are going to be antsy for the Chemical Brothers to move along to the Next Big Thing in electronic music, and Come With Us, while highly successful on its own terms, isn’t it. But Tom Rolands and Ed Simons do what they do better than anyone else out there and they demonstrate on this album that they still have a few tricks up their sleeves to keep the formula fresh even though it’s familiar. By their next outing, the Brothers will indeed have to work it out and come up with something we’ve not heard from them before, but right now, I’m perfectly happy to slip down the rabbit hole and take the acid test with them one more time.