THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS
Come With Us
by Simon Reynolds
It's a tough time for dance believers. Clubland chugs along with blandly efficient floor fodder (trance, so-called "progressive", filter house), deejayed by globe-trotting technicians marketed as pseudo-personalities. On the underground tip, you can choose between a deep house scene stifled by its own conviction that it was so much better back in the over-mythologized day, or the blink-and-you'll-miss-'em succession of leftfield subgenres (microhouse, clickhop, glitchcore, etc) whose frequent excellence is somehow diminished by their scene's hermetic seclusion from the wider world (this despite Bjork's best efforts as ambassador). 2step, still one of dance culture's few claims to edge, is bedevilled by the peculiarities of transAtlantic transmission, and remains stalled as a hipster clique pick in a few major American cities. As for drum'n'bass---believe it or not, some people have only just noticed it's dead!
And what of the class of 1997, the heavy-hitters of electronica's false dawn? Despite being chockfull of potential hits and rock-listener-friendly moves, Daft Punk's Discovery and Basement Jaxx's Rooty have not exactly set Billboard on fire. Like The Chemical Brothers found last time around (1999's Surrender), with American radio programmers sceptical or hostile, and video channels looking for stellar faces and bodies, the sales ceiling for the Anglo-Euro giants of dance music seems to be slightly lower than, say, the runt of Roc-A-Fella's litter, or a side project by Tool's drum-tech.
Right about now would be the right time for the original funk-soul Brothers to retrench. Come With Us follows not one but two bid-for-maturity albums---the second of which, Surrender, lost most of the commercial ground gained by the first, 1997's rocktronica-spearhead smash Dig Your Own Hole. So you could forgive a chastened Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons for getting back to (big) business as usual and offering a rote dose of block rockin' big beat. What makes Come With Us a modest triumph is that the Chems haven't fallen back on the fratboy-friendly formula that launched a thousand TV commercials. Instead they've gone one step beyond the under-rated Surrender by integrating like never before their two sides, high-octane thrust and airy psychedelic dreaminess.
Come With Us might actually even be their best album, in the precise sense of being their least bitty, most cohesively album-like album. It's like they've applied the mix-CD flow-motion aesthetic of track-to-track compatibility to an LP of all original material. No single song attains, let alone surpasses, their highest heights to date --"Setting Sun", "It Doesn't Matter" --but there's a superbly sustained wholeness of mood, feel, sensation. In a word: whoooosh! One of the Chems's fave tricks this time round is using delay and similar FX to create the audio equivalent of after-image trails and tracers. Tremolo is another constant: sounds that seem to physically shiver in your ear. And it sounds like some of the techniques they came up with during the drawn-out agony of the Surrender sessions have become permanently installed in their music-making arsenal: self-coined concepts like "implied music" (building up a huge density of multitracked sonic layers, then stripping them down until only Turin Shroud-like ghost-traces remain) and "acoustic trance music" (using "organic" sounds like woodwinds, but programmed and patterned in the ultramodern ways allowed by digital technology). "Trance" is a key reference point for this album: Simons & Rowlands have talked in the past about appreciating the populist appeal of DJs like Paul Van Dyk, and on Come With Us it's like they've assimilated some of the spangled kineticism of recent trancefloor monstertunes like Hatiras's "Spaced Invader".
Come With Us starts fast, as if to banish the mellow aura of Surrender, their self-conscious attempt to leave behind over-adrenalized Big Beat and blatant crowdpleaser dynamics. The first three tracks are urgent but serene, like a car chase on Prozac. On "Galaxy Bounce" and "Come With Us," rippling arpeggios hurtle backwards in the mix like landmarks receding in a rear-view mirror. In this propulsive context, even "It Began In Afrika"--which seemed lame and nondescript as a single--works great. Things take a very slight shift to the pastoral with "Star Guitar," a serotonin supernova of calm elation, and then "Hoops," a perfect meld of the duo's B-Boy and psych-rock tendencies that entwines 12-string folkadelic guitar and a woozy "I'm too high" vocal around a warm pulse of 808 bass. In contrast, "Denmark" harks back to early Eighties punk-funk and "mutant disco" with its heavily processed slap-bass, trumpet, and skittering hand-percussion: Pigbag on pills. And the endlessly ascending crescendoes of "Pioneer Skies" puts some Rush in their rush, achieving (a la Daft Punk's "Digital Love") a grandeur oddly poised between kitsch and kosmik.
Only the obligatory guest-vocalist spots interrupt the seamless joy-ride. Yet another collaboration with Beth Orton, "The State We're In" resembles a Jesus & Mary Chain ballad (over)produced in the Brian-Wilson-for-Generation-E style of Screamadelica (the 1991 album by Primal Scream that defined a rave'n'roll epoch in the U.K., but means nothing over here except for a handful of diehard Anglophiles). Come With Us's climactic closer "The Test" draws on the blowhard talents of Richard Ashcroft, formerly of The Verve--another one of those groups, like Primal Scream, The Charlatans, and Spiritualized, who serve as a token rock band for Brit rave kids who otherwise have low tolerance for guitars. With Ashcroft declaiming quasi-visionary vagaries like "I'm seeing waves breaking forms on my horizons/Lord, I'm shining," "The Test" veers perilously close to transcendental bombast. Moderate, essentially Anglican at heart, it's hard to imagine Ed or Tom uttering the words "now I think I've seen the light" themselves, and generally you can't help thinking they'd be better off keeping any mystical tendencies implicit in the music. Minor defects aside, Come With Us is an almost perfect-thing, and an invitation not to be refused. So, er, go with them.