Tuesday, November 4
Though in recent years they have occupied a sort of limbo – no longer the household names they were in their late-90s commercial heyday, and generally considered unhip simplistic has-beens by underground music fans despite their continued development as artists – the Chemical Brothers are undeniably among the most significant artists in electronic music. The big beat sound they essentially originated, spawning such imitators as the Crystal Method, the Propellerheads, and Fatboy Slim (who named his debut Better Living Through Chemistry in winking acknowledgement of his debt) was the first genre to really spark an interest in electronica among American audiences. So there’s no question the Chems are deserving of a career retrospective, and
although many consider them primarily album artists, at least in comparison to the song-oriented nature of most electronic dance music (consider the clever transitions that unify their arguable peak, 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole), the fact that so much of their success has come through blockbusting, anthemic singles makes the singles-comp format appropriate.
Oddly, Singles 93-03 is not a complete collection of the Brothers’ singles from this period: at least one of the single releases from each of their four albums is absent (including genuine second-tier hits like as "Elektrobank" and "It Began in Afrika"), as are non-album singles such as the aptly-titled "Loops of Fury." (Also, one of the two new songs hasn’t been released as a single – but I’ll get to that later.) Despite the omission of their excellent collaborations with Beth Orton, and the absence of their more abstract, experimental album cuts, the compilation’s chronological sequence allows it to serve well as a Chemicals history lesson. Three well-chosen tracks from Exit Planet Dust are plenty sufficient to represent that groundbreaking but in retrospect somewhat repetitive debut, presenting the big beat formula (guitars, sirens, and massive, massive bombastic breaks) at its purest. What’s truly remarkable is how this stuff can be so funky and so dumbly straight at the same time. The (too few!) inclusions from Dig Your Own Hole find the Brothers perfecting this formula - their signature hit "Block Rockin’ Beats," though sadly divorced from its wall-of-noise intro, still features one of the most indelible basslines of all time – and moving beyond it to fully embrace their psychedelic proclivities - the heady, swirling, "Private Psychedelic Reel" is the Chems at their most majestic, even if at nine unedited minutes it made a better album closer than a compilation midpoint. Finally, one of the Chembros’ trademark innovations - the use of rock vocalists - makes its first appearance on this disc with a Hole track: Oasis’ Noel Gallagher’s belting on the towering, propulsive "Setting Sun."
As the hyberbolically laudatory liner notes suggest, that song is effectively an updating of the Beatles’ "Tomorrow Never Knows" a tune that greatly informs the Chemicals’ aesthetic. "Let Forever Be," from Surrender (whose title is also a reference to the Beatles song), with Gallagher reprising his role as a makeshift Lennon, takes the same concept even further, with magnificent, pop-perfect results. The other selections from that record are more questionable – I’ve never been a big fan of the electro-epic "Out of Control," and while the campy, mercurial house of "Hey Boy Hey Girl" is fun enough, I would have gladly sacrificed both for the blippy, addictive lead single "Music: Response" or more importantly the shimmering, transcendental "Sunshine Underground," which many fans consider their finest effort.
Last year’s Come With Us only gets two selections here – the heavenly filtered-trance of "Star Guitar," and the rather embarrassing "The Test" – overlooking the slamming first three cuts and the quirkier tracks, like "My Elastic Eye," which form the real meat of the album.
As for the now-obligatory two new songs, both are promising collaborations (with Canadian rapper K-OS and the globetrotting Flaming Lips, respectively), and but neither really goes anywhere – "Get Yourself High" can’t compare with earlier hip-hop guest tracks like the banging b-side "Not Another Drugstore" with Justin Warfield; while "The Golden Path" cuts itself off just as Wayne Coyne’s high lonely mantra starts to build towards that trademark Chemicals delirious trancelike repetition. They may be enough to make this disc worth picking up for hardcore fans, but they take up disc space that could have been much better utilized in the interest of providing a complete and balanced overview of the Chemical Brothers’ best work.
Still Looking Good to Me by The Band of Blacky Ranchette
(Thrill Jockey, 2003)
Still Looking Good to Me is a curious artifact. Just take the name of the artist, for starters. What does that mean? What is Blacky Ranchette? If Howe Gelb is something of an indie-country Stephin Merrit, a prolific and pedigreed songwriter juggling an impressive number of projects and aliases, this "Band" is his version of The 6ths, an opportunity for some of the nicest names in underground country and strummy rock to join him on some (highly) original tunes. Present and accounted for are pals M. Ward, Neko Case and Richard Buckner (who turn in a gawgeous duet on "Getting it Made"), Jason Lytle of Grandaddy, Kurt Wagner of Lambchop, members of Calexico, Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, Howe Gelb of Giant Sand, etc., and most excitingly Jojo Richman’s drummer, Tommy Larkins. But don’t expect any straight-up all-star by-the-numbers rootsy melancholica. I told you, this is curious stuff. The tunes are swell and swinging, and everybody’s singing like a charm, but you never know when the writer’s gonna veer off and get lost along the way, or just take a breather for some dusty noodling, or a Danish bandoneon solo, or a chat with a Tennessee state trooper. Blacky Ranchette just likes to keep things loose. Lytle joins Gelb for a rendition of "Working on the Railroad," like you remember it but with a few shifted rhythmic emphases, and strumming on an old dobro? Case (best known for her work with the New Pornographers) offers her sirenic voice as one of the strongest sonic elements on the album, along with the occasional thick’n’sweet pedal steel, just keeping those fragmented C&W signifiers coming - lyrics about trains and rusty axes, aborted one-two boogies, $30 boots. I love me some of that sad, pretty, twangy stuff, but by comparison with this it all starts to seem kind of similar and well, unimaginative. This here is y’allt country with a short attention span. Not in a jarring way, but enough to keep you guessing. Chan sings: "My hoo ha/she knows where/to put that certain chill in the air." Curiouser and curiouser.