[22 March 2006]
Those of us with long memories can be forgiven our high expectations—after all, Liam Howlett, mastermind behind the Prodigy, is responsible for 1999’s The Dirtchamber Sessions, one of the better mix CDs to come down the pike in the last decade. Compiled from three decades worth of rock, punk, hip-hop and dance, The Dirtchamber Sessions stood apart from most other DJ mixes, then and now, for the fact that it resembled nothing so much as an addled ADD punk’s idea of what a DJ mix album should be. It was rude, crass, and exquisitely mixed. Even if it didn’t have the Beatles track that Howlett held out for (he should have known that after the Beasties pulled it off back in the day, no one samples the Beatles), it was still probably the only DJ mix CD on the shelves to feature both the Sex Pistols and Frankie Bones.
In the wake of the blockbuster release of the Prodigy’s hits collection Their Law, Howlett (inexplicably billed on the cover as “Liam Prodigy”, as if the Prodigy moniker were a surname a la Ramone) has contributed an entry to the esteemed Back to Mine series. Disappointingly, it hews pretty close to the series’ established rules. This doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad disc—as far as the Back to Mine series goes, it’s passable. But from Howlett, it is nowhere near as good as one could have wished.
The weakness of the Back to Mine series is its inability to maintain a consistent narrative flow. While some artists (notably the likes of Groove Armada and Danny Tenaglia, who contributed stellar, essential entries into the series early on) established an eclectic and downbeat mood for what appeared to be a DJ’s showcase, other artists have been given carte blanche to construct personalized mix tapes regardless of applicability for late night listening, some entries (such as Howlett’s) even going so far as to eschew mixing alltogether. Those, such as myself, who saw the advance tracklisting and were wondering just how Hewlett managed to segue from the Queens of the Stone Age’s abrasive “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” into Public Enemy’s violent “Welcome to the Terrordome” will be slightly disappointed to hear that he simply ends one track and begins the other—just like that. Perhaps I am simply dense but I do not understand the appeal of a mixed CD that is not mixed: the result is little more than what you might expect from a burnt party CD given to you by a friend with good record collection.
There is a previously unreleased Prodigy track (“Wake the Fuck Up”). It’s a pretty good track at that, energized and ominous, hardly the tossed-off fodder that major artists usually contribute to off-brand compilations such as these—but it’s also only three minutes long. And while there are certainly no flies on Howlett’s taste in quality cuts, there’s also a somewhat disappointing obviousness to many of his selections. We hear Meat Beat Manifesto’s “Radio Babylon”; a great tune but one of that group’s most popular and familiar. Similarly, P.I.L.‘s “Rise” is probably that group’s biggest hit, Noreaga’s Neptunes-abetted “Nothing” was huge on the radio very recently, and there are few people in the hemisphere who haven’t heard Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, or some variant thereof (it was covered by the White Stripes just a couple years back). On the one hand, I have always found the attitude of DJs who insist on playing secret and rare cuts to the exclusion of anything else to be hopelessly boorish, and their mixes to be just slightly masturbatory. But the opposite is hardly more desirable, as overly-obvious selections and popular cuts preclude the kind of insightful synergy that results when a DJ goes off the beaten path.
I can’t say that there’s nothing of value, here. Max Romeo’s “Chase the Devil” is a wonderful inclusion, containing as it does the sampled basis for the Prodigy’s own “Out of Space” as well as Jay-Z’s “Lucifer”. But seriously: how many second-wave ska compilations have the Specials’ “A Message to You Rudy”? Is it even possible to compile a two-tone collection without “A Message to You Rudy”? By default there are some good songs, but the mix on the whole fails to cohere into anything more than the sum of its parts by simple virtue of the fact that the distinctive parts could not be more obvious. A missed opportunity.