Let us hope that the Chemical Brothers have not already entered that long senescence of bands who, having exhausted inspiration, commence to release compilations and anthologies with far more enthusiasm than their desultory new material. 2003 saw the release of their aptly-titled Singles 93-03, and that collection served the purpose of collating their first decade with about as much aplomb as could be expected. There were a couple of new tracks –- one good, one not so much — and an excellent bonus disc that contained treasures for both newcomers and long-time fans.
History repeats itself in 2008, which brings the release of Brotherhood. Like the previous collection, the disc at hand is fairly innocuous in and of itself. There are a couple of new tracks — one of them, “Keep My Composure”, with Spank Rock, is pretty awesome, the other, “Midnight Madness”, only so-so (but more on that later). Brotherhood’s highlights are pretty much what you might expect: I now have yet another CD with identical versions of “Block Rockin’ Beats”, “Chemical Beats”, “Hey Boy Hey Girl” and “Star Guitar”. These are great tracks, one and all — in fact, I’d go so far as to say there isn’t a bad track on the whole disc, even if you’ve probably heard them all before. (Although I don’t like “Galvanize” very much, but again, more on that later.)
But the singles taken from the duo’s most recent two albums, Push the Button and We Are the Night, sit uneasily next to the incontrovertibly great earlier material. Again, it’s not that these are bad songs, but they present an uncomfortable division when placed next to gems from the Chems’ classic period. To put it bluntly: the Chemical Brothers have lost a fair amount of ground chasing after pop success these past five years. I can’t say for certain that they specifically set out to make crossover hits — I’m no mind-reader, and I’m loathe to accuse them of “selling-out”. But historically speaking, the Chemical Brothers never had any trouble making uncompromising dance music that fit comfortably on the pop charts without sacrificing a shred of dignity. Push the Button is a very good album, but “Galvanize” is the weakest track on it, a bland attempt at Jock Jams hip-hop that flounders, partially due to a vacuous contribution from Q-Tip and partially due to the fact that it’s just kind of boring. I don’t mind it as much as I used to: the fact that it’s the first song on the album means that it’s over soon enough. “Galvanize” was the soundtrack to a Budweiser ad campaign here in the States, which says just about everything that needs to be said about that.
Likewise, “Do It Again” is an anomaly on We Are the Night, a straight pop crossover situated uneasily on an album filled with return-to-form dancefloor anthems and, um, “The Salmon Dance”. I will give them a pass because, unlike “Galvanize”, it’s not really a bad track. It’s a fairly blatant stab at replicating Timbaland’s success with Justin Timberlake, which only seems noxious until you consider that the Chems have never made a secret of the fact that they are unabashed Timbaland fanboys, and this isn’t the first track specifically designed as an homage to the producer — the Dig Your Own Hole-era B-side “Morning Lemon” is the first, followed by Surrender’s “Orange Wedge”.
But compare these harmless stabs at pop relevancy with something like “Block Rockin’ Beats”. Has there ever been a smarter song so devilishly disguised as dumb? It’s perfectly positioned as the lead-off track on Dig Your Own Hole, five minutes that could serve as a thesis statement for the duo’s career. Built on a foundation of early Meat Beat Manifesto as well as the Bomb Squad’s production for Public Enemy and Ice Cube, it’s a dense stew of sound, but given propulsive force by the momentum of late ’80s and early ’90s acid house, and finally, satisfying structure by a then-unheard-of allegiance to the verse-chorus-verse pop architecture. Even without lyrics, the songs build and climax and bridge, and they usually have hummable melodies as well. The Chemical Brothers took a number of ideas that had been floating around in the air for a while but were the first to congeal them into a singular sound. Electronic music didn’t need to sacrifice the intelligence of Orbital or Underworld in order to achieve the chart success of the Prodigy. No offense to the Prodigy — I love the Prodigy — but you’d have to work pretty hard to convince me that Fat of the Land didn’t succeed in the USA primarily because it was a dumbed-down version of their earlier, better records.
The secret ingredient was the Beatles, and specifically, attention to the versatility of the Beatles’ songcraft. Both of their obvious Beatles homages are present, the industrial “Setting Sun” and the sunny “Let Forever Be”. Both songs take a lot from the Beatles, most obviously the rhythm and melody of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, but they don’t bite without also adding as well. “Setting Sun” is perhaps the hardest track the Chems have ever produced, owing a great deal to the aforementioned Meat Beat Manifesto, and even Psalm 69-era Ministry. “Let Forever Be” goes in the exact opposite direction, channeling the Jam and even Elvis Costello. It says a lot for the Chems that they can reference the rock canon in such an ingenious manner, using common touchstones as a way to bridge such a disparate range of influences, without once seeming forced or ill-conceived.
If you’ve never heard the Chems before, Brotherhood is a passable introduction, although it doesn’t betray much of the complexity of their albums. Hits collections are rarely more than the sum of their parts, but in this case that’s hardly a bad thing. It’s not rocket science.
But the real attraction here is not so much the first disc — filled with great tracks but no real surprises — as the second, bonus disc. It’s a few dollars more for the bonus disc, but more than worth it: it’s probably the best single disc the Chems have released in the last decade. Whereas the first disc showcases the duo at their best in the realm of (relatively) concise radio-friendly pop-influenced electronic music, the second disc showcases their pedigree as hardcore dance musicians. There’s something slightly schizoid about the division, and the development of this split-personality has been the primary reason why their last few albums have been less satisfying than their first few. Despite their pop-friendly exterior, they’ve never lost sight of the club, and have continued to record and release tracks exclusively intended for the dancefloor, usually under the odd “Electronic Battle Weapons” rubrick. Since the late ’90s they’ve released ten Electronic Battle Weapons, and although all of these tracks have been released here and there throughout the years, this is the first time all ten have been available in a single place.
This is some of the best dance music ever recorded. You’ve got the acid-drenched tracks that eventually became Dig Your Own Hole highlights “It Doesn’t Matter” and “Don’t Stop the Rock”. You’ve got a whiplash-inducing early mix of Surrender’s “Under the Influence”, and the incendiary Surrender-era B-side “Freak of the Week” — to say nothing of the massively potent, still-devastating “It Began In Afrika”. “Midnight Madness” rears its head here as well, albeit in a much preferable extended version. The version on the first disc is only three minutes long, and in this instance brevity does the music few favors.
Brotherhood does a passable job of attempting to reconcile the two increasingly disparate sides of the Chemical Brothers’ split personality. Their early material did not betray any discomfort over these seemingly contradictory approaches, and one of the reasons their sound remains so potent today is the way they bridged the worlds of dance and rock — effortlessly. It may be old hat now but they were the first. They can still create awesome dance music when they want to, but for whatever reason have spent the majority of the current decade redividing the unified sound they spent the nineties so painstakingly integrating. Their most recent album, We Are the Night, was a great return to form primarily because it refocused the duo’s attention on the state of current dance music. The pop songs don’t work as well because they seem set apart from the main wellspring of their music. The recent singles stand out from the pack on Brotherhood — it’s not that they’re bad songs, but they’re only so-so as Chemical Brothers songs, and they pale next to the least of their early singles.
I suspect one of the reasons “Block Rockin’ Beats” and “Hey Boy Hey Girl” stand the test of time so well is that the Chems weren’t really trying to rewrite the rules of pop music, but that is nonetheless what they did. They were terribly nonchalant about the fact that they were making some of the best, most incendiary pop music ever recorded — it didn’t even sound like pop music, at the time, even if it sounds terribly prescient today. They’ve lost that revolutionary fervor in their later material. “Galvanize” and “Do It Again” sound suspiciously like a band caught in the trap of trying too hard. But their dancefloor-specific tracks are still as awesome as anything they’ve ever done. Perhaps if they just forgot about working with guest vocalists and building marketable singles and just returned to the fulltime business of tearing up the dancefloor, they could still be as potent as they once were.