It was never supposed to go this far. Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons were just a couple of club kids who started DJ'ing their own gigs. They figured to be such a small speck on the local scene that they didn't even bother to think up a name of their own, instead stealing the nom de guerre of the L.A.-based cut and paste production duo the Dust Brothers. But the gigs grew bigger. Word of their success, and their name, reached the left coast. Litigation intervened. Dust became Chemical. Before they knew it, they were bigger than the original Dust Brothers, who no doubt wondered why Beck had suddenly stopped calling.
In 1997, Rowlands and Simons were handed a torch. "The gods have spoken, my sons, and decreed that this is The Year of Electronica," bellowed the torchbearer, an independent consultant for the music industry. "I know not your names, but you are ordered to climb the mountain and ward off all trespassers, come hell or high water. You must not fail! The fate of pop culture is hanging perilously in the balance!"
Halfway up the mountain, the Chemicals were ambushed by 600 ska bands.
One can only wonder what would have happened if 1997 had indeed been the Year of Electronica (terrible, terrible word) so many pundits claimed it would be. Would we have a landscape of flash in the pan techno artists akin to the ska boneyard that lies on the outskirts of L.A.? (Whither, Reel Big Fish?) Would the Chemical Brothers have been uttered in the same breath as, horrors, Aqua? The possibilities are endless, and terrifying.
When a musical style or trend is embraced by the mainstream, it is usually to that style's detriment. (See: The Book of Grunge, Chapter 11, "Candlebox") Bands that may have an interesting record in them are advised to instead go for the hit, and as a result make something far inferior to what they would have done in the first place. Eventually, the industry machine will take the once-fresh new sound and render it pale to the point of translucence, and that is when the backlash hits. The backlash that ska suffered was so severe that even early '80s Two Tone gods the Specials, Madness, and the English Beat lost some of their street cred.
It would therefore stand to reason that electronic music is better off because the supposed Year of Electronica never happened, that ska wound up taking the bullet and the electronic scene was allowed to thrive in its lack of mainstream popularity. Sadly, that is not the case. Even with its precious underground status and elitist caste system intact (ask any DJ, and he'll tell you: he has better taste than anyone else alive), dance music has grown shockingly bland. BT's new record is so overblown that it triggers epileptic seizures in test monkeys. French darlings Air made one of the best records of the '90s, only to turn into colossal bores.
Perhaps this is why the Chemical Brothers are so important. Their albums are imperfect, but they are aggressive and forward thinking in the way that all great artists are. The psychedelic stomper "Setting Sun" was the best song of 1996, and easily outrocked anything collaborator Noel Gallagher did with Oasis. "It Began in Afrika" was hailed as a classic before the first "Afrika-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka" had left the speakers. To paraphrase the claim of the Clash, the Chemical Brothers are the only current electronic band that matters.
So why, then, is their hits album, Singles 93-03, such a disappointment? How can an album with "Setting Sun", the Grammy winning "Block Rockin' Beats" (you read that right), and ad music staple "Chemical Beats" on one disc be anything but fantastic? Because the album feels like a callous bootleg, lazily and hastily assembled.
The Chemical Brothers clearly value establishing a mood, a vibe, on their albums, with careful attention paid to both track sequencing and the segues in between each song. They seem to delight in the challenge of taking songs with drastically different beat speeds ("It Began in Afrika" and "Galaxy Bounce" from Come with Us, for example) and finding a way to seamlessly blend one into the other. The songs on Singles, however, are not given any special attention, with the standard two to three second gaps between each song, which is nothing short of Chemical blasphemy.
What would have been far more compelling is if Singles had been assembled like a typical Chemical Brothers album, with the boys creating musical bridges between tracks and therefore between the various stages of their career. The complete lack of attention to something they normally obsess over begs the question of whether the band was even involved the making of this album or if they just turned in the two new songs -- more on those later -- and let the label worry about the rest.
The other, and much bigger, issue with Singles is, frankly, the singles. In the interest of time limits, they couldn't include all of the singles the band has released. However, the CD clocks in at under 72 minutes, meaning there was plenty of room to either use the full length versions of "Setting Sun" and the other fab Gallagher collaboration "Let Forever Be" (both versions are radio edits) or add one more song, like the dazzling "Where Do I Begin" from Dig Your Own Hole, or oh, I don't know, "IT BEGAN IN AFRIKA"?
That's right, the band left off one of the biggest songs in their catalog because . . . they hate it. But they were more than happy to include "The Test", the meandering, unfocused collaboration with Richard Ashcroft that no fan, even with a gun to his head, would pick over "Afrika". Even Simple Minds wouldn't keep "Don't You (Forget About Me)" off of any hits album of theirs, and they hated that song before the mixdown was finished. Hate the song if you must, boys, but leaving it off of what is supposed to be a compilation of your best work renders the album meaningless, never mind the backhanded insult of putting your own interests ahead of the fans.
Which brings us to the two new songs. They're compelling, but only one is truly worthy of inclusion. "Get Yourself High", a collaboration with Canadian rapper K-OS and their first real hip-hop track, sports a great robotic keyboard line and a drum track that demands its listeners to drop and do the worm. It's a gutsy move, considering fellow Big Beat boys the Propellerheads beat them to the punch five years ago by recruiting the Jungle Brothers for the party jam "You Want It Back". But "High" is just as good, and there's something about the key, a combination of a major note and its sharp, that sticks in the craw. This will sound very cool in the clubs.
Closing track "The Golden Path" is an unlikely pairing with the Flaming Lips that is the most fleshed out rock track the band's ever done. The vocal is sung/spoken like Ian McCulloch channeling Mark E. Smith, and only in the second half do we hear Wayne Coyne's unmistakable tenor, repeating "Please forgive me / I never meant to hurt you", which lyrically has nothing in common with the rest of the song. It's okay, but it would have made more sense on a Lips album than it does here.
The Chemical Brothers admittedly had a tough task ahead of them in assembling this compilation. They've done a lot of stellar work, and the only way to fit it all on one CD would require radio edits of all songs, which would defeat the purpose. Singles 93-03 is a good representation of what the Chemical Brothers are capable of. But it's not the best representation. A golden opportunity, missed.