The Chemical Brothers
Push The Button
n the mid-90s it looked as if dance music was on the verge of total crossover into the rock-oriented mainstream, and for a while I guess it did, and massively so in the UK. Orbital, Underworld, Leftfield, and Prodigy all had major hit singles, developed reputations for awesome live performances, and released albums which were hailed as classics by rock critics and dance fans alike; while Ibiza became as important a musical pilgrimage for the UK as Glastonbury and drum ‘n bass was co-opted as soundtrack music for any television program wishing to capture “youthful energy.”
Fast-forward a decade. Something went wrong somewhere. Prodigy’s last album was lacklustre to say the least, Orbital committed revisionist hari-kari with Blue Album after the woeful Altogether, Underworld have slowly dissolved, Leftfield split, and guitars are back on the agenda with a vengeance. Come With Us, title track and a couple of singles aside, was a major dip for The Chemical Brothers, and came at a time when dance music was already floundering in the water in the face of technologically-advanced, dancefloor-oriented pop music and increasingly ecstasy-friendly hip-hop. The best dance album of 2001 was arguably Missy Elliott’s Miss E… So Addictive, proof, perhaps, that America wasn’t taking to Euro-centric dance music because it already had its own, and had it all along. Big Beat semi-succeeded where others failed perhaps because of its direct proximity to hip-hop, meaning it was more accessible to a US audience from the get-go. But anyway, who wants another fucking history lesson?
And so to Push the Button, The Chemical Brothers’ fifth album in 12 years, and their best since the one before the last one, assuming you think the one before the last one was good. Which I do. It might, perhaps, herald the return of “the dance album,” especially when taken in the context of other forthcoming releases like Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem. It might also herald the point at which dance music consumes rock in order to assure its own survival, being as it is a more song-oriented affair than Come With Us, which seems in hindsight to try too hard to fill floors and not hard enough to maintain our attention as listeners. Or it might herald nothing.
Lead single and album opener “Galvanise” finds Tom and Ed doing what they should have done ages ago; hooking up with a fucking great MC (Jason Warfield doesn’t count). Why it’s taken them until now to make such an obvious step is a mystery. Of course, as a creative entity they’ve always done more than just amp-up old Grandmaster Flash breaks and stick a 303 and/or a siren and/or a corrupted guitar riff on top, dipping into house and electro and various other sub-species of beat when they’ve felt like it, and generally doing so with aplomb, but what became known as Big Beat is still the sound most associated with them.
Q Tip’s effectiveness on “Galvanise” (“If you think about it too much / You might stumble / Trip up / On your face” being one of my favourite radio moments of 2005 so far) is proof that they need to stop placing emphasis on using asthmatic indie “singers” as vocalists. It worked well with Tim Burgess the first time, because he rode a fantastic piece of sun-drenched techno-pop, and Noel Gallagher’s flippantly Beatles-ripping pastiches were good fun just because, you know, they were a million miles better than his day job at the time, but Burgess yelping “I’m a tiger” like a 12-year old girl in drama class on “The Boxer,” Push the Button’s most aimless track, is poor. Much better is Kele Okereke from Bloc Party, who barely registers as a presence on “Believe,” which is the correct way to go about it. Anwar Superstar’s politically-correct presence on “Left Right” is a squirm-moment at first, but grows in power with repeated exposure. (It could have been Bobby Gillespie, for fuck’s sake. But it could also have been Eminem, which would be the greatest thing ever, and provable as such by science.)
Elsewhere we get “Marvo Ging,” which would be a great name for a pet gecko, and is also a fabulously obvious backwards-streaming cod-Asiatic piece of white funk that makes me twitch when it flips up on my iPod. “Hold Tight London” is pretty to the point of incandescence, “Shake Break Bounce” is like Basement Jaxx on Ritalin, and “Surface to Air” is their best album closer since “The Private Psychedelic Reel,” all motorik rhythms and hints towards transcendence. In fact it’s so good that it imbalances perception of Push the Button as a whole, making it seem better than it is because it eradicates memory of what went on in the previous 55 minutes, meaning you go away from the record with a heady rush of “brilliant!” rather than just “quite good…”
Why do I love The Chemical Brothers? Ignore the fact that they can fill a dancefloor and ride a break until it takes the back of your head off in a rush of near-orgasmic fucktitude; I listen to them most when I’m moving. Back in the summer of 1997 it was pure joy to be riding around in a mate’s car blasting Dig Your Own Hole and their awesome remixes of Primal Scream and Spiritualized, and for almost the first time since then (Surrender coming out post-mate’s car and pre-iPod) they’ve added some glide to my stride when I’ve been listening to them as I amble through town. I’m not sure that there’s anything as great as the New Order-in-space of “Out of Control” or the delirious dance nostalgia-qua-neophilia of “The Sunshine Underground,” and it certainly doesn’t stand up to Dig Your Own Hole or half of Exit Planet Dust, but Push the Button is much better than I’d hoped it would be a few months ago.
It’s ten years since we turned off at Planet Dust and that little subgenre we call dance music is in a totally different state to what it once was. The question isn’t whether The Chemical Brothers are still relevant or ground-breaking or even life-affirming (dancing is almost always life-affirming, poseur), it’s whether they’re good to dance to, to listen to. They are.