Can The Chemical Brothers Surface From 'The Sunshine Underground'?

In England they're in the top 10; in the U.S. they're nowhere, man.

(Editor's Note: The "Sunday Morning" essay does not reflect the views of SonicNet

Inc. or its affiliated companies.)

Editorial Director Michael Goldberg writes:

The Chemical Brothers make the closest thing to truly modern pop-rock

music that I've heard in ages.

I think of them as having a real kinship with the mid-to-late-'60s Beatles

("Rain," "Strawberry Fields Forever") and the Brian Jones-era Rolling

Stones (think "She's a Rainbow" or "Let's Spend the Night Together").

What I'm getting at is that, once upon a time, rock bands made experimental

albums that mixed radio-friendly hits with outré sounds, and those

albums were actually popular. Strange as it may seem, I first heard the

Beatles' "A Day in the Life" — which was truly radical for its day

with its suite-like structure and orchestral arrangement — on a

top-40 radio station.

The audience that listened to top-40 radio was willing, for a time, to

embrace music that didn't sound just like what had come before it.

In England, that is still the case. Thus DJs such as the Chemical Brothers

can have top-10 hits, as they did recently with "Hey Boy Hey Girl" (

HREF=",_The/Hey_Boy_Hey_Girl.ram">RealAudio excerpt).

Unlike, say, Britney Spears or Ricky Martin, who make music that is a

lot like the pop songs we've heard for years, the Chemical Brothers

create recordings that may have some familiar elements but always include

fresh beats and sounds, too.

From the muted psychedelia of its '60s-hippies-meet-'90s-ravers cover to

the trippy sonics of "Out of Control" (RealAudio

excerpt) and "Got Glint?," the Chemical Brothers' third album,

Surrender, released June 22, is the kind of modern, experimental

album a Beatles fan would have appreciated in 1968. (Now that same fan

would probably dismiss it based on the drum-machine rhythms, but

that's another story.)

What is so interesting to me about the Chemical Brothers is that they

take something obviously retro, such as a Noel Gallagher vocal, and lay

it onto a slammin' modern track — check out "Setting Sun" (RealAudio

excerpt) off Dig Your Own Hole (1997). Similarly, the new

album's "Out of Control" merges a space-age soundscape with the voices

of New Order's Bernard Sumner and Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie.

No one would mistake this stuff for '60s rock. Nor does it sound like

'80s synth pop or late-'80s or early-'90s electronica. But at the root

of the Chemical Brothers sound is a rocker's pop aesthetic. I'm sure

these guys listen to the Beatles as well as Oasis, the Stones and

Mercury Rev (whose Jonathan Donahue collaborates with the Chemical

Brothers on the new album's "Dream On").

They have learned they can go far out yet keep their songs from floating

away by utilizing some tried-and-true pop conventions along with the

weird samples.

There's a punk ethos at work here as well. From mid-to-late-'70s punk,

the Chemical Brothers learned there are no sacred cows. Everything and

anything is fair game to appropriate for a song. And one can have fun,

too. They've just got to be laughin' their asses off over some of the

sounds they've worked into the tracks on Surrender.

In the U.S., the Chemical Brothers are lucky if they break into the

modern-rock top 40, where there is usually room for a novelty song such

as the Offspring's "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)," but less tolerance

for something truly offbeat or original.

DJs, be they the Chemical Brothers or the Beat Junkies, don't usually

top the charts in the U.S. — yet. Sure, the Prodigy had their moment,

but they're the exception that proves the rule, as are the Beastie Boys,

who snuck some cool DJ sounds in under the wire on Hello Nasty.

Perhaps the Chemicals Brothers' appearance at Woodstock '99, where the

audience presumably will be open to many different kinds of music, will

bring them a larger U.S. fanbase — and get such Surrender

songs as "Out of Control" and the amazing "The Sunshine Underground"


excerpt) onto the radio.

But I'm not gonna count on it.