Photo by Hamish BrownThe British dance acts that reached our airwaves during those electronica summers of the late '90s have pretty much seen their stateside popularity dissolve like a hit of X on the tongue - Orbital is no more, Underworld lost Darren Emerson, and after seven years the Prodigy (what's left of it) finally released its current album to little fanfare. Luckily, we're still left with the Chemical Brothers. And what with DJs being imageless artists in a commercially unviable genre, you have to give credit to Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons for sustaining a career that not only includes their just-released fifth studio album, Push the Button, but also a string of radio hits that started with 1997's massive "Block Rockin' Beats" and continued through last year's "The Golden Path," an early Indie 103.1 fave featuring the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne. Exit Planet Dust was such a groundbreaking album and Dig Your Own Hole (the Chems meet the Beatles via Noel Gallagher on "Setting Sun") such a defining one that the duo's subsequent releases, 1999's underrated Surrender and 2002's all-but-ignored Come With Us, were seen as misfires. This is a mystery considering the latter two held the same formula as their more successful predecessors: Keep your finger on the breakbeat pulse (just not the same loop over and over again), but also keep an eye out for enough short, pop-oriented songs (and just not Fatboy Slimey commercial jingles) to keep things radio-friendly. To listen to the unpretentious, trippy masterpiece Surrender is to look back at that first glorious Coachella: 110 degrees, sawdust stench, and the Chemical Brothers. Surrender gave us star collaborations with two-time partner Gallagher and New Order's Bernard Sumner, producing the hits "Let Forever Be" and "Out of Control." Plus, two of yours truly's favorite Chemsongs, "Under the Influence" and "The Sunshine Underground" - the former, a fingers-in-the-ears bass thumper that can swell a beat-up Corolla like a plastic water bottle, and the latter, a steady-as-she-goes buildup of sitar and tribal beats that's the single best reminder of dancing with those dirty-footed hippie ravers on that October day. Though it offered more guest appearances, including ex Verve singer Richard Ashcroft and another returning muse, Beth Orton, Come With Us found itself with a smaller audience. Largely a nod to Afro-funk, it didn't have a breakout song, though the lush "Star Guitar" gets resounding love. (Watch the accompanying video, and the song really does feel like looking at a moving post card of pastoral scenes from a train.) Speaking of - the lost art of videos, that is - the Chems have contributed some real cutting-edge MTV2 beauts, featuring everyone from Sofia Coppola as a gymnast to kung-fu fighters wearing boom boxes. Whatever focus Rowlands and Simons say they've regained on their newest, Push the Button is the same, patented Chemistry of mixing the experimental with the accessible. Almost any one of the 11 tracks is a dance-club or arena hit waiting to happen, but the real fun is finding the surprises that truly reveal the brothers' skills, whether they're doing it solo or with a little help from their friends. First, the boys know they wouldn't be here if it weren't for hip-hop. So kicking things off is "Galvanize," the current radio biggie starring Q-Tip that boom-boom-booms into a medley of Middle Eastern strings right out of a cabaret, and even comes complete with a zaghareet (that ululation made by women rolling their tongues) chorus in the background. Now, normally we don't encourage techno-izing Arabic melodies - especially if you actually listen to Arabic music, and particularly after that unholy alliance between Sting and rai singer Cheb Mami that's still getting airplay - but every DJ has to bow to the East. Besides, when was the last time you heard Q-Tip on KROQ? Even truer to hip-hop form is "Leff Right," the "story of a soldier" that is by far the Chems' biggest musical departure to date. DJs jumping on the Bush-bashing bandwagon seem laughable, but this is a steel toe of a marching song, with Anwar Superstar (younger brother of Mos Def) barking "left right, left right" and making the claim: "If it's so important for us to fight for mankind/Well I don't see none of their kinfolk out there on the frontline." The music is pure Commodores funk, slow and sleazy. "The Boxer," essentially a broken-record riff, is the real throwback to the '70s and '80s here; when the Charlatans U.K.'s Tim Burgess - yet another returning guest star - whispers, "I'm a hustler," it's a chip right off of Curtis Mayfield's old block. Moody atmospherics, like the starry-eyed number "Close Your Eyes" with its overlapping harmonies and the sound of tinkering toys, would've been perfect for, say, a very downsized Polyphonic Spree. Less inspired, though, is "Hold Tight London" in which Anne-Lynne Williams of Trespassers William has the requisite Dido-ish vocals that aren't so much sung as they're swirled in and out of the beats. But don't get too antsy there, 'cause the more straightforward dance-floor cuts are both the heart and flexing muscle of the record, like the "White Lines" bass of "Come Inside" or the dueling video-game bleeps on "Believe." The latter is only three songs into Push the Button, but when Kele Okereke from London band Bloc Party begs, "I need you to believe in something," it's hard not to. THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS | PUSH THE BUTTON (Astralwerks)
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