In the 10 years since the Chemical Brothers burst out of Manchester with "Song to the Siren," Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons have been hailed as one of the most important groups of our era. Electronic-music pioneers, technological innovators, cross-genre bridge builders ó the accolades have piled up like Grammy Awards on Quincy Jonesís mantel.
Still, the release of their fourth album, Come with Us (Astralwerks), suggests that all may not be well with the Brothers. "Could it be that Iím just losing my touch?", New Orderís Bernard Sumner wondered on "Out of Control," the first single from the Chemical Brothersí previous album, 1999ís Surrender (Astralwerks). The answer, to guess from that discís sales figures (it didnít crack the half-million mark), might be a resounding yes. Over the past two years the Brothers have watched their groundbreaking big-beat sound become car-commercial fodder.
But Soundscan numbers rarely tell the whole story. Although the Brothersí sales figures and their pop-culture profile have decreased somewhat since 1997ís Dig Your Own Hole went gold and "Block Rockiní Beats" became a catch phrase, their style of musicmaking has become increasingly prevalent. Dig Your Own Holeís "Setting Sun" owed a major debt to the Brill Building and its collection of pro songwriters, musicians, and arrangers, who ruled pop music in the pre-Beatles era. Like a postmodern version of those buttoned-down Tin Pan Alley publishers, the Brothers (with the help of racks of digital equipment) were responsible for every aspect of their musicís creation from the ground up ó from writing, arranging, and performing the song to recording and producing the results. The singing, however, was farmed out to pretty faces like Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher (who was the voice of "Setting Sun"). Itís a division of labor that was the norm before the Beatles came along and made writing oneís own songs the mark of an artistís integrity.
Throughout their career the Brothers have maintained this MO ó after all, Rowlands and Simons canít carry a tune, and big-name cameos help album sales. But though they werenít the first or the only group to marry the egoless realm of rave music to the ego-driven world of mainstream pop, the Brothersí collaboration with Gallagher turned the celebrity-studded electronica album into a cliche of sorts. (See Fatboy Slimís Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars, BTís Movement in Still Life, and Crystal Methodís Tweekend for evidence.) One could even argue that with his cameo-bloated mega-comeback Supernatural (Arista), Carlos Santana was simply applying the Chemical Brothersí strategy to a more trad-rock context.
Unfortunately, Supernatural also turned what, in the Chemical Brothersí hands, had been quirky, one-off collaborations into a committee-produced, market-driven product. And maybe thatís why Come with Us feels so reactionary. Yes, it has the requisite vocal tracks, but there are only two guests (Beth Orton and former Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft) compared with Surrenderís five. And Ortonís drippy "The State Weíre In" and Ashcroftís melodramatic "The Test" are the two weakest tracks ó they sound more like record-label obligations than artistic inspirations. Itís as if the Brothers were shedding an old skin ó the trippy electro-pop, piston-pumping big-beat throwdowns, and rave-rock collaborations of the past are MIA ó in search of a new look.
Thatís not to say that Come with Us doesnít sound like the Chemical Brothers. The duoís distinctive traits ó tactile, 3-D sound textures, throttling funk loops, hooky vocal drops, roller-coaster build-and-release arrangements ó are still in evidence. Whatís gone is the extreme My-Bloody-Valentine-meets-Mantronix frequency abuse of Dig Your Hole; the Brothersí psychedelic tendencies appear to have taken a utopian turn ó less Ecstasy and more Echinacea is my guess. The result fuses tranceís ethereal drive with funkís earthy grit, big beatís cut-and-paste tactics with technoís uplifting ride, deep houseís pan-African polyrhythms with acid houseís funhouse tweaks.
Singling out a pinnacle moment is difficult, since this album has the consistent and cohesive single-minded flow of a self-assured mix CD. Its commercial potential, however, seems limited. No frat-boy anthems or obvious singles here, just kaleidoscopic dance tracks blooming with vivid colors and intricate textures. In other words, this is a confident and mature step forward for the Chemicals. The real question is, are their fans ready to follow?