CD: The Chemical Brothers, Push the Button

Dance music may be sinking, but the Chemicals aren't going down with it, says Alexis Petridis
4 stars (Astralwerks/EMD)

There are many personality traits traditionally associated with multi-million selling superstars, but stoicism is not one of them. Then again, even a cursory glance at the Chemical Brothers reveals that, despite a decade of platinum albums and global success, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons bear no resemblance to multi-million selling superstars. So perhaps their attitude to the fading fortunes of dance music should come as no surprise. All around, their peers in the fraternity of stadium-filling dance acts have been routed. Recent albums by the Prodigy and Fatboy Slim have sunk without trace. Underworld's greatest hits collection struggled painfully to number 46 in the album charts and dropped out a week later: an ignoble fate for a record containing some of the most headily innovative music of the past 10 years. Surveying the carnage around them, some, including Orbital and Leftfield, have manfully bitten the cyanide pill. Others have turned traitor, switching allegiances from synthesisers to guitars.

For the Chemical Brothers, however, it's contempt for the quislings - and stiff upper lips all round. "The idea that you abandon ship is not on," said Rowlands recently, bucket in hand.

From its defiant title downwards, Galvanize, the first single from the duo's fifth album, Push the Button, carries with it a hint of Nearer My God To Thee. It does the one thing that the duo's big-league contemporaries have proved fatally unwilling or unable to do: progress from a once-successful, now overfamiliar formula.

The Chemical Brothers' formula - thunderous breakbeats, acid house synthesisers, hip-hop samples and textures borrowed from late-1960s psychedelia - was more successful and familiar than most. An entire genre emerged in the wake of their debut album, Exit Planet Dust: big beat. Their sound proved malleable and their influences broad enough to support two further albums, 1996's stunning Dig Your Own Hole and 1999's equally impressive Surrender. In recent years, though, the duo have had audible difficulties transcending their own template. The patchily brilliant Come With Us (2002) tried everything, from hammering techno to My Bloody Valentine guitars to silly old Richard Ashcroft, in pursuit of escape velocity. Galvanize achieves it with an enviable insouciance: the beats toned down, the squawking synthesiser replaced with woozy Arabian strings, the hip-hop samples elbowed in favour of a live rapper, former Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip.

Recognisably the work of the Chemical Brothers, but unlike anything else in their back catalogue, it is the first, but not the last time that Push the Button pulls off the biggest trick in the book. Hold Tight London is magnificent, starting with a house beat, a Chic-like guitar lick and the bleeping of a submarine's sonar, then slowly unfurling into a lush ballad reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins. Close Your Eyes employs the vocal harmonies of soft rockers the Magic Numbers to delicious effect. Surface to Air is a gleeful homage to New Order. Featuring both the guitars from an early Cure album and a frantic acid line, The Big Jump is just deliriously odd.

Not all of Push the Button is such a breeze. Some new ideas flop - Shake Break Bounce's African rhythms are a bit of a schlep - and despite their spirit-of-the-Blitz pronouncements, there's an occasional sense that the duo have been rattled by recent developments. The appearance of Tim Burgess harks back to a rosier past. The Charlatans' frontman provided guest vocals on their epochal debut, but times have changed. These days, Burgess is resident in LA. Unfortunately, The Boxer gives him an opportunity to deploy both a standard-issue mid-Atlannick accent and his own patent contribution to the panoply of vocal styling, the Awful Falsetto. "I'm a hustler, I'm a tiger," he squeaks, sounding nothing like a hustler or a tiger and everything like Joe Pasquale. In the past, the Chemical Brothers have always been able to cover their collaborators' failings - the music on Setting Sun and Let Forever Be was so startling you barely noticed Noel Gallagher's primary-school lyrics - but here, not even a mass of special effects can stop Burgess' shortcomings shining through. They seem similarly at a loss on Left Right: a minor MC called Antwan provides a turgid rap, the music follows suit.

One thing Push the Button lacks is the cohesion that marked Dig Your Own Hole and Surrender. It sounds less like an album than a collection of tracks, most of which hit home. But then, that's what dance music is like in 2005: not dead, just different from its mid-1990s incarnation, the emphasis on individual tunes rather than spectacular hour-long statements. Push the Button is unlikely to change that state of affairs, but it shows the Chemical Brothers, unlike their peers, are capable of adapting and surviving. At its best, it makes you forget the idea of abandoning ship altogether. The band on the Titanic would be proud.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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