At one time the Chemical Brothers were the biggest electronica band in the land. Before Fatboy Slim was heard in every commercial, before Ray of Light won a Grammy, before Prodigy had a number one record, the duo of Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands had the biggest Big Beat beats. With their first two records, 1995's Exit Planet Dust and 1997's Dig Your Own Hole, they defined the DJ-as-rock-star role, mixing noise squalls, ambient synth, and (as they characterized them on their Grammy-winning tune) "Block Rockin' Beats." But it's been two years since Dig Your Own Hole -- a lifetime in dance-music years, and the Brothers have responded to their displacement by retreating from full-throttle bombast into an even larger, spacier, and more psychedelic sound. Instead of focusing everything on the percussive elements, Surrender is chilled out, giving larger play to melodic instruments and voices.
They haven't given up on Big Beat -- they've just expanded their focus beyond hyped-up drums. Tweaked-out synthesizer sections, hovering organ loops, and mechanical rhythms are given more prominence. The opener, "Music: Response," bounces on a low-key drum machine, rubbery, outer-space keyboards that ping-pong left and right, and vocoderized vocals that blur into track two, "Under the Influence." The pulsing low end of "Influence" carries over into the fast, high-pitched beats of "Out of Control" as the record builds momentum and the first of many guest vocalists (Bernard Sumner of New Order) enters the fray.
As on previous releases, guests are trotted out like hipster badges on Surrender. Thank goodness Noel Gallagher (Oasis), Bobby Gillespie (Primal Scream), Jonathan Donahue (Mercury Rev), and Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star) are used as more than just sonic scenery; they're made the focus of the songs on which they appear. Gallagher's vocals on "Let Forever Be" are expectedly Beatle-esque -- matching the music's paisley bass line and psychedelic pop keyboards. Sandoval does her best to sound half-asleep even while the Chemicals prop her up with little more than twinkling keys and a rising and ebbing organ. In sum, this is a mellow but triumphant return.
-- David Simutis
The Apples in Stereo
Her Wallpaper Reverie
As the proprietor and producer of the Elephant 6 stable of pop reconstructionists as well as the guiding light of the similarly bent Apples in Stereo, Robert Schneider is singularly responsible for some of the most startlingly contemporary retro-pop music in the country. The Apples' latest bit of crystalline brilliance, the mini masterpiece Her Wallpaper Reverie, is more grist for the pop mill.
Reverie is equal parts pop brilliance and arty frustration. Of the 15 tracks listed, less than half are actual songs, the remainder being brief instrumental interludes with cryptic titles like "Morning Breaks (and Roosters Complain)." These musical shards connect the songs tangentially, with the one constant being a toy piano plinking out the disc's ostensible theme.
The real magic resides in the actual songs. "Shiney Sea" begins with a melancholy riff that suggests Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" and sets it in the context of a lilting piece of gorgeous baroque pop. "Strawberryfire" is a primer on everything the Apples do best, from Beatle-esque harmonies and chord changes to Move-like dips and swells. "Ruby" is cut from the same cloth as the Todd Rundgren homages of Ben Folds Five, while "Questions and Answers," sung ably by Hilarie Sidney, sports the same beer-/dance-hall chic as vintage Kinks run through the Aimee Mann filter. And the ripped-from-today's-headlines hilarity of "Y2K" offers commentary on 12/31/99 paranoia set against a Bacharachian bit of spritely pop schmaltz. All of these influences -- and Schneider only lifts from the best -- are swirled together in a psychedelic retro-contemporary sonic stew that crackles with energy and life.
At 27 minutes Reverie proves maddeningly short. If and when the Apples cut loose with a full album's worth of songs -- as opposed to the feeble "concept" interludes here -- there won't be a Top 10 list in the country safe from the Apples' clutches.
-- Brian Baker
Naughty by Nature
Nineteen Naughty Nine: Nature's Fury
Like a lot of people, I'd written off as dead this Jersey trio a few years back. Understandable, given the four-year silence that followed Poverty's Paradise, the group's iffy 1995 release. All the more reason to rejoice at the arrival of Nature's Fury, a stupendous record that ranks as the most beguiling hip-hop release of 1999.
Unlike the wholesale melodic theft plied by artists such as Puff Daddy and Will Smith, NBN specializes in reinventing old hooks. Thus the good-time melody to the current single, "Jamboree," is a reworked element from Benny Golson's "I'm Always Dancin' to the Music," while the slinky groove of "Dirt All by My Lonely" is propelled by a chiming keyboard fill lifted from the band's own 1991 hit, "Uptown Anthem." Elsewhere the trio makes inventive use of the disco chestnut "Car Wash" and DeBarge's "I Like It."
NBN's beats are relentless, its hooks are irresistible, and the vocal cameos scattered throughout -- Big Gun, Silkk the Shocker, Master P, and Phiness, to name a few -- are topnotch, not toss-offs. The mesmerizing "Live Then Lay" is as powerful a statement about inner-city grief and mortality as has been yet set to wax. Nature's Fury is a long-overdue antidote to a market dominated by empty-headed braggadocio and Rolex-mongering.
-- Steve Almond