Fork Media (7.8/10)
Few artists have suffered as much guilt-by-association in the past decade as the Chemical Brothers; they've been derided as simpletons for spawning the now-mostly-unloved big beat genre, recording with Noel Gallagher, and unwittingly earning a spot among the U.S. media's leading faces for 90s "electronica." Some dance purists sneer at their lack of a traditional floor-filling build and release (they more often opt for a highlight-reel approach instead) and their tendency to exalt their collaborators at the expense of the crowd. But, while it's true the duo's key to success was their tendency to borrow heavily from rock's immediacy and penchant for noise, their rock/dance interface did seem a fresh and natural progression of dance music's mid-90s evolution.
From their roots in Manchester's Acid House days, the duo's clear talent lied in the combination of hip-hop's urgency with the crowd-pleasing peaks of house and techno. Innovation never seemed as much a priority for them as repeatedly striking a listener's pleasure zone-- though, to be fair, there is a more of a sense of narrative and conscious dynamic in their records than can be found in those of big beat contemporaries like Fatboy Slim, Propellerheads and Apollo 440. It's unfortunate that Astralwerks has chosen this moment to compile the first decade of the duo's career (mid-90s electronica seems to be in the deepest valley of cultural relevance that it may experience in the next twenty years), but it's a solid collection nonetheless, rounded out with two new tracks: one collaboration with Canadian rapper K-OS, and another with The Flaming Lips.
Presented chronologically, the disc opens with two songs from the Exit Planet Dust LP. "Song to the Siren" and "Chemical Beats", originally credited to The Dust Brothers (the moniker was later ceded to the American production team), sounded something like a hybrid of Public Enemy (mostly due to their pillaging of Bomb Squad riffs and breakbeats) and less effete shoegaze groups, albeit with heavy influence from the Balearic melting-pot. "Leave Home" follows, offering more pummeling sub-bass and homage to old-school hip-hop-- it even contained the prominent B-boy vocal snippet "brothers gonna work it out," doubling as a statement of intent and a reference to their bandname litigation.
"Block Rockin' Beats", the first of a handful of selections from the band's U.S. breakthrough, Dig Your Own Hole, is also peppered with sirens and bass, and while it may have been their most direct hardcore techno/hip-hop crossover, its reliance on repetition and a near-pop song structure made it feel slightly overlong. The buzzing, psych-informed Noel Gallagher collaboration "Setting Sun" borrowed liberally from The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" and featured screeching guitar and a brilliant mid-frequency breakdown before throwing the listener back into the deep end of sub-bass and breakbeats. Another Beatles-quoting track, "The Private Psychedelic Reel", demonstrates the band's eclecticism, belying its techno roots. So far, so good.
Despite its attempts to move away from pervious sound, the duo's third album, Surrender, was hamstrung by too much recycling: the same guests or types of guests, the same moods, and the same use of soundbyte and dynamics. Here, the Brothers made concessions to their rock stardom and continued to engage with that world in the few ways they knew how-- more textured, atmospheric guitars and drowsy, morning-after vocals. The pedestrian "Hey Boy Hey Girl" lacked their usual big drums and obvious hooks, which would be fine were its vocal sample stronger. Compared to some of Surrender's more house-oriented and delicately textured tracks-- such as "Music: Response", the delightfully minimal "Got Glint?", and "Under the Influence"-- "Hey Boy Hey Girl" was an electro-house snore. The Balearic, almost filter-disco feel and Bernard Sumner vocals of "Out of Control", however, are a welcome addition here, as is "Let Forever Be", which, despite the duo's decision to fly in the drum track from "Setting Sun" and to feature another over-stretched vocal from Noel Gallagher, was ultimately a more sophisticated offering than its predecessor.
2002's Come with Us was coldly received by the public and critics, and the songs featured here fail to make a solid case for reconsideration. "Star Guitar", the collection's most rave-oriented track, doesn't leave much of an impression, but may as well be Beethoven's 9th next to the Richard Ashcroft collaboration "The Test". Opening with a bit of "Papua New Guinea"-like tribalism, the song is ground to a halt by Ashcroft's flaccid shaman act and ponderous drug lyrics. The song is simple hippie bullshit, a deserved companion for Fatboy Slim's equally wretched Jim Morrison-quoting "Sunset (Bird of Prey)".
The duo's new collaboration with K-OS raises the question as to why, when hip-hop has so obviously informed their music, they'd never before teamed with an emcee, even while K-OS' lyrics and delivery are somewhat wanting. The Flaming Lips collaboration "The Golden Path", meanwhile, features a bouncy Pet Shop Boys beat over which Wayne Coyne employs what is essentially his natural voice for most of the track before drifting into his more recognizable affected falsetto. Unfortunately, like Ashcroft, Coyne seems to prefer play-acting to making a positive contribution, and his stream-of-consciousness good-vs-evil dialog is detrimental to the track's staying power.
Though one could easily be misled by its title, this compilation doesn't purport to be a complete collection of The Chemical Brothers' singles, Among the missing are "Loops of Fury", inexplicably relegated to being the highlight of the album's limited-edition bonus disc, which offers eleven B-sides, mixes, and rarities as extras. Additionally, the disc features a live version of the also regrettably omitted "Elektrobank", as well as the "original version" of Come With Us highlight "Galaxy Bounce", and B-sides such as "Morning Lemon" and "If You Kling to Me I'll Klong to You".
So like many career-spanning collaborations, Singles 93-03 sacrifices quality control for a democratic approach that lends nearly equal weight to all four of the band's albums, and avoids the opportunity to re-examine and highlight lesser-known tracks. For more than ten years, the Chemical Brothers have been one of the most vibrant post-acid house artists in the UK, but the only clear reason for their fans to plump for this disc are mostly located on the now-requisite limited-edition bonus disc. Were the record's second half to have been filled with the best bits of the Chemical Brothers' last two albums, rather than offering a handful of limp new tracks and minor hits, these two discs would have been the best possible 1-2 punch for Chemical Brothers newbies. As it stands, those two discs are still called Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole.
-Scott Plagenhoef, September 26th, 2003