Last year brought two albums from two of the shiniest beacons of late ‘90s electronica: The Prodigy’s Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned and Fatboy Slim’s Palookaville. Both, in their own way, are reminders that we can never go back to 1997 again. The Chemical Brothers have managed to be slightly more prolific than their “next big thing” counterparts, and their latest, Push The Button, is actually their third new studio album since 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole. Thus, while Prodigy and Slim ended up sounding like opportunistic trend-followers, the Chemical Brothers have managed to slyly incorporate the winds of change into their own inimitable big beat sound.
To be specific, ever since “Music: Response” sampled Nicole’s “Make It Hot,” the Chems have been one of the few acts in the still overwhelmingly white-boy world of techno to embrace their kissing cousin hip-hop (see also Armand van Helden). The title track of 2002’s Come With Us eschewed the bass-popping funk samples that had characterized the ex-Dust Brothers’ groundbreaking early work in favor of operatic, chugging hip-hop histrionics. The ethnographic, world-beat house of “It Began In Afrika” stripped away most of the scalloped faux-degeneration that dirtied up previous happy hardcore efforts like “It Doesn’t Matter.” And “Star Guitar” (still their most rapturous single) adapted their twinkle-eyed psychedelica ethic while shrugging off the druggy doldrums of “Where Do I Begin.”
And now comes yet another album whose title makes unequivocal demands. Push the Button is tinged with fatigue, but a decade of LSD has been known to have such side effects. To get the disappointment out of the way right off, the Chems’ most egregious misstep as of late is trying to incorporate the lamentable residue of those obnoxious chill-out compilations that take up 80% of the shelf space in nearly any record store’s dance section. Which is not to say there’s a single track on the album that sounds like it would fit snugly on any of those comps, but their approach to production has notably flattened out. Where are all those quirky aural embellishments that turned subsequent listens into treasure hunts? The backward snare rimshots of “Hey Boy Hey Girl”? The steel drum lamentation that provides the bitter coda for “Life Is Sweet”? The coked-up glockenspiel of “Lost In The K-Hole”? Most of the tunes on Push the Button reveal their secrets on the first or second listen.
And unlike with previous albums, you’ll know which songs to add to your iPod right away. My adds? The stretch of four songs that is bracketed by the unsuccessful interpolations of UK grime on “The Boxer” and the extremely irritating “Left Right”—most notably the understatedly simmering “Hold Tight London,” which should ideally be heard blasting from two rooms over, and “The Big Jump,” a strutting G-funk house number with sandpaper rhythms and a rubbery, bugaboo bass line. But ultimately, the album’s patchwork limitations leave the typically panoramic album-capper “Surface To Air” hanging out to dry. Call it a case of stubbornly high expectations, even in the face of an apparent implosion of the world of dance music as anyone who was around in the early- to mid-‘90s knew it, but I still expect more than a solid collection of b-sides. Daft Punk, the ball is in your court.