The Chemical Brothers
Singles: 93 – 03
Astralwerks
2003
A-



new Order. Primal Scream. The Chemical Brothers.

For me, this constitutes the holy trinity of British dance music. All three were peerlessly successful in their merging of the electronic with the natural, the rockin’ with the groovin’, the mind-melting with the ass-shaking. All three have one titanic, landscape-shifting single and one absolutely stunning, epochal LP to their name (try and guess which ones!). Hell, they even seem to recognize this relationship themselves, all guesting on each others’ material (Bobby and Barney appear here on disc one’s “Out of Control”). And, at the end of next month (with the pending release of Primal Scream’s Dirty Hits), each will have a definitive two-disc greatest hits album.

Singles ’93 – 03 is, obviously, a singles collection spanning the first decade of the Brothers’ existence. Presented in chronological order, there is much territory covered between the air-raid sirens that commence the 1993 debut from Tom and Ed, “Song to the Siren” (get it?) and the chiming bells and Coyne-isms from the Flaming Lips frontman that close the latest ’03 single, “The Golden Path”. It’s brilliant, obviously—many of these singles are among the greatest of the 90s, and even one or two of the more recent ones rank among the greatest of this young decade—but as far as greatest hits albums go, well, it’s not exactly Substance.

See Substance benefited greatly from the fact that each of its twelve tracks was either unavailable on LP or presented in some drastically different version. Not the case with Singles 93 – 03, which consists entirely (save the two new singles) of album tracks, all of which are presented in their LP version. While that’s an improvement on, say, Orbital’s recent greatest hits format (which presented nearly all the songs in blasphemous 7” or radio edits), it still leaves much to be desired, as these songs were all vastly superior on their respective albums.

The Chemical Brothers (formerly The Dust Brothers) started out as a bombastic electro-funk duo, united by their love of Public Enemy and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” After a couple of increasingly high-profile singles, debut Exit Planet Dust dropped in 1995. The album was shockingly consistent and coherent for a debut, playing like a really fucking good night at the Chems’ Heavenly Social Club. Almost any of the tracks on this album could’ve been pulled for a single, and four were, three of which start off this collection. Unfortunately, two of them are the two weakest tracks on the album (debut “Song to the Siren” showed promise but was relatively directionless, “Chemical Beats” has one of the weakest vocal hooks you’ll ever hear) and although “Leave Home” is a fabulous mission statement of sorts, it still pales in comparison to superior album tracks “Three Little Birdies Down Beats,” “In Dust We Trust” or “Alive Alone.” Good songs but poor choices.

Things pick up considerably with the tracks from Dig Your Own Hole, The Chems’ sure masterpiece. DYOH was clearly the Screamadelica of the times, the bassline to “Block Rockin’ Beats” bursting out of the gates just like the lead riff to “Moving on Up,” “Setting Sun” a monument, towering over the rest of the album just like “Loaded” did, “The Private Psychedelic Reel” combining the trippy psychedelia of “Higher Than the Sun” with the godly unity of “Come Together” and the closing sparkle of “Shine Like Stars”. All three of those songs are chosen to represent the album here, demonstrating the stunning way the Chemical Brothers would take two steps backwards (“Block Rockin’ Beats” cribs the bassline to 23 Skidoo’s “Coup,” “Setting Sun” references the manic drumming of the previously mentioned “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and “The Private Psychedelic Reel,” quotes the Happy Mondays’ “Lazyitis” with Jonathan Donahue’s sitar) in order to take a giant leap forwards. Dig Your Own Hole was so big that not even the States could contain them, “Setting Sun” and “Block Rockin’ Beats” both making inroads on MTV and paving the way for the Big Beat breakthrough to follow.

Things remain steady with the wisely chosen selections from the rather underrated Surrender and Come With Us. The Chemical Brothers’ third album saw them shying away from the big beats that had won them two #1 hits in the UK and going for a more gentle, near European approach to dance. “Hey Boy, Hey Girl” and “Out of Control” are two of the Chems’ best dance songs, the latter especially inducing four-on-the-floor hysteria with its Moroder-esque main hook and gorgeously sighing (and doubly sassy!) guest vocals from Sumner and Gillespie. Elsewhere, “Let Forever Be” expanded upon the “Setting Sun” formula in Surrender fashion, toning down the sirens and feedback rushes and sounding all the more psychedelic for it. Come With Us’s “Star Guitar” is pure bliss, and even if the semi-lame Richard Ashcroft collaboration “The Test” is inexplicably included to the exclusion of the far superior “It Began in Afrika” (a #1 club hit in the US), it’s still a worthy way to wind down the collection.

The Chems go one for two with the new tracks. “Get Yourself High” is resoundingly meh, a thoroughly OK production with some grating vocals from fellow Astralwerks artist rapper K-OS. “The Golden Path,” however, is an extremely worthy addition to the Brothers’ pantheon, a positively life-affirming collaboration with the Flaming Lips. It ranks among the duo’s best singles to date, sounding…sounding exactly the way you’d hope a collaboration between the Chemical Brothers and The Flaming Lips would sound like. It’s enough to even make you think that even though the band’s moment in the sun might have passed, they might not be completely overshadowed yet either.

The main problem with Disc 1 of Singles ’93 – 03, a couple questionable track selections aside, is that it doesn’t feel like a Chemical Brothers album. A truly great greatest hits album should make you forget that it’s a compilation, because the flow should be so natural. And The Chems’ can flow like no other—remember the way that “Setting Sun” exploded on Dig Your Own Hole after the relatively bland “Piku”? The way that after the cacophonic outro to “Where Do I Begin?,” the emerging sitar riff on “The Private Psychedelic Reel” came through like a single ray of sunshine? The way that “Influenced” crashed head-on into the keyboard squalls at the beginning of “Out of Control” after the voiced warning, “don’t run”? On Singles ’93 – ’03, the Bros make no attempt to piece the collection together, presenting it in boring chronological and even putting three seconds of silence in between each track—unheard of on a Chemical Brothers LP!

However, the collection finds redemption on disc two, probably the closest thing to the the b-sides and rarities collection the Chemical Brothers have been promising for some time that will ever be released. Without having to worry about being a definitive document of their career, disc two is actually a lot more fun, and if you haven’t heard these songs before (several are unreleased, actually) it’s almost like getting a brand new Chemical Brothers album. It also explains the exclusion of essential Chemical Brothers singles “Loops of Fury,” Life is Sweet” and “Elektrobank” on disc one, as the first is included here (probably because it was a non-LP single) and the other two are presented here in vastly different alternate versions.

Consisting of similar alternate versions, a couple of great b-sides, and even a couple of unreleased tracks from the Come With Us era, Disc 2 is a near revelation. The Chems do early 80’s electro (a superior early version of “Galaxy Bounce” and the stunning new track “The Duke”), experiment with some of the most furious breakbeats of their career (“Morning Lemon,” a great live “Elektrobank,”) chill temporarily (“If You Kling to Me I’ll Klong to You,” the near Morr Music “Otter Rock”) and kick out the jams more than ever (“Loops of Fury,” the “Life is Sweet” remix “Delik”). They even start out the disc by turning what is by far the worst song of their career, the abominable “Not Another Drugstore,” into a seven-minute statement of intent worthy of album openers “Leave Home” and “Block Rockin’ Beats”.

So despite the disappointing presentation and disc one’s relative failure to properly define what exactly made The Chemical Brothers so great, Singles ’93 – ’03 is still made essential for any Chems fan by the fabulous “Golden Path” and the ridiculously enjoyable bonus disc, a real treat for fans. Since the second disc is supposedly a bonus disc on the Limited Edition Singles '93 – ’03, it would also be advised to get this before it disappears, for some reason. Hey, at absolute least, it’ll tide you over until The Prodigy get around to releasing Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned.
Reviewed by: Andrew Unterberger
Reviewed on: 2003-10-10
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