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The Chemical Brothers

Surrender  Hear it Now

RS: 4of 5 Stars Average User Rating: 4of 5 Stars

1999

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Dance music is something usually spoken of in the future tense: the imminent hits and next hot samples; the underground remixers ripe for prime time; the changes just around the bend. Surrender, then, is a rare thing in electronic body pop: a record about yesterday. In fact, the third sterling studio album by the Chemical Brothers, the English spin-jockey duo of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, may be the first dance-music album about the end of dance music, or at least the end of the innocence -- the way things were before the bungled hype of electronica; before Prodigy-copycat bands and third-rate techno compilations; before Madonna reinvented herself as a digital Dolly Lama and Fatboy Slim became the DJ king of TV-commercial residuals.


"Under the Influence," "Out of Control," "The Sunshine Underground," "Dream On": Most of the song titles here are blatant valentines to the first great age of E's and raves, Britain's fabled acid-house summers of 1988 and '89. Rowlands and Simons were there as young, thunderstruck clubbers, and they soak much of this record in literal, cheery reminiscence. "Under the Influence" is all throb and velocity -- an insistent, circular synth figure; zippy drum-machine sizzle; dive-bombing bass. At one point, the music comes to a series of gulping stops, as if Rowlands and Simons were braking the track on a turntable in real time. As the song suddenly rocks back to full speed, you have a good idea of what it was like to ride the music in a field full of loons, all off their heads on pills and shimmy.


The pneumatic roll and vocoder-filtered refrains in "Music: Response" and "Got Glint?" reference even more ancient daze: the crucial, early robo-soul of Detroit techno pioneers Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins; Afrika Bambaataa's early-Eighties fusion of Bronx break beats and Kraftwerk. Rowlands and Simons also evoke, brilliantly, the first stirrings of British post-punk dance culture in "Out of Control" -- a shit-hot mimicking of the 1983 New Order classic "Blue Monday" -- with, for extra cheek, lyrics and vocals by New Order's Bernard Sumner (crooning with perfect repressed-English-schoolboy menace).


If Surrender was simply meticulously rendered nostalgia, it would be just pleasant, a step down from the Chemicals' 1995 rave-tastic debut, Exit Planet Dust, and the heaving Acid Test funk of the pair's '97 chartbuster, Dig Your Own Hole. But this is a record that also moves. Dance music is primarily about the beat; without it, there is no dancing. But the best dance music is about what happens over, under, in the thick of a rhythm -- about the tidal dynamics and programmatic tension feeding the pulse. Surrender is rich in both.


Rowlands and Simons know how to get busy with the barest essentials. "Hey Boy Hey Girl" is basically a single percolating riff, a knocking beat and the starting-gun chant from Rockmaster Scott and the Dynamic Three's 1985 single "The Roof Is on Fire" ("Hey, girls, hey, boys, superstar DJs, here we go!"). Yet the mix is a hive of activity: Drums come in and out like riptides; cymbals crash with punctuative effect; wheezy keyboard licks are mounted atop each other in squishy counterpoint. The track rocks not for any one of those reasons but, ultimately, for all of them.


Replacing Beth Orton, the Chemicals' siren of choice on Exit and Dig, Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star is suitably coquettish in her vocal cameo, "Asleep From Day." More fun is the episodic music around her: the racing-bongo segment and the toy-town folk rock culled, at least in spirit, from old Judy Collins records. In "The Sunshine Underground," a chip off the swollen-arpeggio trance rock of "The Private Psychedelic Reel" on Dig, the Chemicals tweak the core riff (played by what sounds like the love child of a sitar and a hammer dulcimer) with sly rhythmic shifts and nutty percussive touches (a bicycle bell, for instance) that fatten the piece's subtle muscularity.


As fine as Surrender is, it may be time for Rowlands and Simons to revamp their approach to making studio albums. There is a creeping sense of formula to the celebrity-vocal packages. "Let Forever Be," the Chemicals' second Revolver pastiche featuring Oasis' Noel Gallagher, lacks the crisp novelty of the Dig template, "Setting Sun." In fact, this album's best moments come without lyrics or singing. Rowlands and Simons have memorialized their gloriously wasted youth by making a record that kicks like living history. Put it on, crank it up, bust a move. (RS 815)


DAVID FRICKE




(Posted: Jun 24, 1999)

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