Pop goes the beat

The Chemical Brothers get bored on the dance floor.

EVERYBODY WANTS TO be a pop crossover these days. Even drum and bass pinup DJ Rap transformed herself into the spawn of Madonna and the Spice Girls for her full-length debut. Diehard rappers like Snoop Doggy Dog are teaming up with guitar-slingers (in his case, Marilyn Manson) to try out a little Rage Against the Kornstyle bombast. Following the success of dance/rock fusioneers Fatboy Slim and the Prodigy, approximating traditional song structure and adding some lyrics and/or guitars is looking like a good idea to lots of DJ/producers. It's a mildly ironic turn of events, given the recent profusion of lame hard rock bands—endlessly clamoring "Rock's not dead!"—springing up like so many bedraggled dandelions.

Chemical Brothers

Surrender (Astralwerks)

Paramount, July 13

Way back in '95, the Chemical Brothers—Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons—were the hope and hype (to the media and industry, at least) for crossing British techno over to the mid-American rock mainstream. They made inroads, thanks to the 1996 single "Setting Sun"—a worthy collaboration with Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher and an air-raid siren—and its follow-up, "Block Rockin' Beats," which sampled Philly rapper Schoolly D. As these rock- and hip-hoptinged singles promised, the ensuing full-length, Dig Your Own Hole, reached for eclecticism. Yet at the record's core was the same dance-floor feel and open-ended, mostly instrumental tracks as were found on the duo's debut, Exit Planet Dust.

Despite others' characterizations of them, Rowlands and Simons have never pretended to be techno purists—rather, like Madonna, they float along with the pop culture sine wave, occasionally dipping into a subculture to appropriate things that appeal to them. So they're not betraying any ideals on their latest record, Surrender; what they are doing is embracing their influences so tightly that they have barely enough energy left over to maintain their own sound.

The Bros. once again called their big-name friends into their South London studio, but this time out, the guests took over the party. So "Let Forever Be," a second Gallagher dalliance, sounds like computer-animated Oasis. The psychedelic "Dream On," with vocals, guitar, and piano by another recurring Chem collaborator, Jonathan Donahue, sounds like his band Mercury Rev. "Asleep from Day," the token languid ballad (a job previously assigned to Beth Orton), features Hope Sandoval and sounds like Mazzy Star. And "Out of Control," a sweaty techno-pop number cowritten by Bernard Sumner, sounds exactly like New Order. Surrender is the best compilation of the year so far.

It's not that Rowlands and Simons have given up bold beats and hip-hop samples; it's just that pop and rock elements (verse-chorus-verse structure, guitars, singing) are now in the driver's seat. In this context, the title song sounds more like an homage to the Who's patented five-minute instrumental intros than the sing-song keyboard loop it actually is.

The other noncollaborative tracks—the good ones—are a little more complex than "Surrender." There's the opening song, an electro-style "Block Rockin' Beats" update called "Music: Response," and the lush, surging "Got Glint?"—an approximation of Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream getting funky with a Vocoder. By far the weakest tracks are "The Sunshine Underground," which shares the trance-y ooziness of its credited sample, new age/ambient maven James Asher's "Earthmessage," and "Orange Wedge," with Rowlands and Simons trying to make their synths solo like Steve Vai. It's almost refreshing when the good ol' fashioned big beat track "Hey Boy Hey Girl" shows up near the end of the record. That's the Chemical Brothers' greatest achievement with Surrender: making everything old sound new again.

 
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