Time was when you could bank on a new Chemical Brothers album every few years, like a gift transported from some muddy field or mega rave somewhere in the UK right to your cranium. They have spent the last two and half decades making music that often assaulted the senses, and live they’re an act that not only cracks your eardrums, but imprints images in your head that you may not always want to remember: their visuals are memorable, and often overwhelming. Just look at the video above (and add it to Do It Again (Live) for starters) and you get the picture. However, much as I love their music and have never had a Chems album that I’ve not liked, after 2010’s Born In The Echoes (itself a comparatively long five years after 2010’s Further) I wasn’t sure we’d even get another record from them.
Ed left them as a live outfit in 2015, and though visual collaborator Adam Smith admirably filled in – they were still incredible at Glastonbury in 2015, where I buzzed to them in their traditional Sunday night Other Stage slot – it felt like it may be the end of a road for a band that pretty much taught me how to dance in a field. In fact as a band, they’ve pretty much soundtracked – like anyone else of *cough* a certain age – my entire raving lifespan. Exit Planet Dust came out a whopping 24 (yes, TWENTY FOUR) years ago, but it blew my socks off then and still sounds absolutely crisp and fresh as it did then. Named after their previous Dust Brothers moniker (they reputedly nicked it from Beastie Boys producers, never thinking they’d ever be successful enough for it to matter) the album introduced us to many Chemical Brothers staples: acid 303s, growling leads, huge drum fills, sampled vocals, guitar licks and whooshing, discombobulating sounds and melodies. It wasn’t all eye-popping peak-time bangers though, because they have also made a name making more blissed-out tracks (see One Too Many Mornings from that very album) and seeking out collaborations with artists that fitted their unique template.
I say unique ironically, as one criticism through their hugely successful career has been an accusation – lazy, in my opinion – that they keep making the same record or that they’re unoriginal. I think that would be on firmer ground if a) anyone else consistently sounded like them and b) there wasn’t the great variation within their sound across all their albums. Some of the songs I most love from the last 30 years of electronic music (and that I still own on vinyl) are from the Chems: It Began In Afrika, Come With Us, The Golden Path, Hey Boy Hey Girl, Chemical Beats Out Of Control and The Private Psychedelic Reel (god, I’m getting nostalgic here) and of course their enduring work with Q-Tip, Galvanize and Go (two of my favourite tracks). They sounded amazing, their videos were groundbreaking (I still love watching Hey Boy, and thinking ‘oh, I used to dance there’) and live they were almost unrivalled in the electronic music scene. I’ve seen them live half a dozen times, and they’ve never disappointed. Though I still wish I’d been to Red Rocks.
So the news that Ed was back and a new album was coming left me with mixed feelings. Was it going to be up to their standard? And if not, should you bow out gracefully? We’re not getting any younger, and it’s a long time since we were freewheeling hedonists in the 90s and 00s. Of course, i shouldn’t have worried. Even if there is a little of the law of diminishing returns in play, a few listens to No Geography and it feels like slipping on an old pair of jeans. And I still get that Proustian rush back to some memorable live experiences as soon as those familiar sounds fill the ears. The fact they’ve made it with just the kit from their early albums feels a nice pushback against the over-compressed, quantized, perfectly melodic electronic music we’ve been bred into these days.
I hope it gets them some new fans too. I know they’re touring, and I know I’ll want to go. And part of me feels a bit sad that younger crew today won’t get to hear Hey Boy Hey Girl for the first time back when, and this ‘what the FUCK it this’? Whatever you may think of them, few have lasted as long as they have, and there’s a reason for that.
But more importantly, what do you think?
Yes, I’m late, but it’s worth it, I hope. This album is the first artist to land a second AOTM, and after the effect the first had on all of us, it seemed almost too obvious to revisit it when there’s so much other music around. However, it’s actually a choice that makes so much sense, because really, there’s a definitive break from the past, and perhaps the appearance of one of the most exciting pop music artists for a long while.
So, what did we learn from Christine And The Queens’ sparkling debut in 2016? An album that was a spring sleeper hit (two years after it surfaced in France), relaunched in a post-Brexit haze where we all needed some musical escapism. In my case, I was one of those wandering around in a teary, beery, existentialist haze at Glastonbury whose day was transformed by one of those ‘moments’ that makes the festival so magical. Christine And The Queens’ set on the Other Stage as the rain fell was one that’ll stay long in the memory. There’s no way a French artist complete with slickly choreographed dancers should’ve melted muddy hearts but Tilted, iT, Narcissus Is Back and Here were pop music of the absolute finest. Rubbery synths, crisp percussion, and beguiling vocals singing about love and loss that sounded as enticing in English as in French. A star was born. But… what next?
The answer, flippantly, would be ‘Chris’. But for Héloïse Letissier it was more than just a change of title. The relentless touring and punishing nightly dance moves had transformed her into a leaner being, and with her success came sexual conquests too, but not man or woman, more whichever took her fancy. Pansexuality, freedom and inspiration. Yet the sonic inspiration for Chris – ‘Christine’s androgynous, confident, male-world-view alter-ego – harks back to the 80s and 90s, where r’n’b was in a renaissance with Michael and Janet Jackson at the fore. You can almost hear the Jam and Lewis influence in tracks like Girlfriend and Doesn’t Matter. But it’s original, punchy hooks and oblique lyrical references that are all her own rather than borrowed from the past, as she explores pansexual conquests from the side of the male gaze.
The result is an album that feels it could only be made by a French artist, such is the ambition, and openly artistic musings that would be sniffed at in England. A staggeringly individual collection of songs where Letissier writes, performs and produces almost every single note, and that should fire her even higher into the pop firmament. Fantastique!
So, another year ended and some great music from January the first to now. Aside from the albums of the month, there’s been some brilliant music, and here’s a bit of mine, so what’s yours?
Albums – (aside from our albums of the month, where my top 3 was AM, Pale Green Ghosts and Modern Vampires Of The City, but more of that later)…
Arcade Fire – Reflektor: I know this has got a lot of stick, but it’s been an essential album since it came out. It’s a change, it’s distorted, overlong in places (not in my opinion really), but it’s a step forward and brave doing it.
David Bowie – The Next Day: How do you manage to record an album in secret as one of the biggest artists in history and release it without anyone knowing? God knows, but even better is that it’s a great album. An elder statesman still on form, and some of his best work in 20 years.
John Hopkins – Immunity: Electronic album with emotion and atmosphere? This nailed it for me. I can’t wait to see him live.
James Blake – Overgrown: I did an air punch when this won the Mercury. It was a leap on from his first, and something that managed to combine the booming, hollow reverberation of dubstep with a very intimate vocal and melody. I wish I had 10% of this guy’s talent. It’s mesmerising music.
A Sagittariun – Dream Ritual: Another electronic pick, but one of the most inventive albums I’ve heard all year. Shades of so much of the music that first introduced me to clubs, but way more than that. (I wrote about it here: http://www.4clubbers.net/2013/music-reviews-161/).
Haim – Days Are Gone: Love it or hate it, it’s not hard to agree this is brilliant pop music. Bits of Fleetwood Mac, 70s soft rock, hip-hop (seriously) and modern guitars, there’s nothing else really like it about this year. And the hype was outlasted. I still love it, even if I’ve listened to it to death.
Phoenix – Bankrupt!: Another festival-inspired album, but more great pop music. A band that’s dismissed as being hipsters, but they can write a tune to remember. Their gig (hazily) at Glastonbury convinced me completely.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories: Ok, so the hype was relentless, the single, Get Lucky, played almost (almost) to the point where it got too much, but there’s something great about an album that goes big on traditional production. Strings, horns, guitars, on a massive studio desk, and not Pro Tools. A complete contrast to most of music in the charts today, and therefore a GOOD THING. It’s not perfect, but then what is these days?
Luke Solomon – Timelines: An unsung hero of UK house music, this album was much more than 12 dancefloor tracks. It was personal, it was poignant (in the case of Lonely Dancer, Solomon’s tribute to Kenny Hawkes) and it was wandering, in fact it’s everything a house music album usually isn’t. That’s why I loved it (and I reviewed it here: http://www.residentadvisor.net/review-view.aspx?id=12961)
Atoms For Peace – Amok: What do Radiohead do when they’re not making their own music? If you’re Thom Yorke then you’re assembling a superband (Flea from the Chilis, Nigel Godrich and more) and making haunting, fractured music that skirts between electronic and guitars. It’s pretty unique – and acquired taste too – but their gig at the Roundhouse was incredible.
Midlake – Antiphon: A late entry but one of my favourite American bands. They may be minus their frontman now, but this is just as good as their previous work. Lush, ethereal, wistful, painful, and sensational.
As for the rest? Singles and gigs were many, and here’s my highlights:
Tons really. Mostly electronic, as that’s what I get and what I listen to, but there’s been a lot of great ones around. Obvious ones and less so.
Todd Terje – Strandbar: You’d have to have been a hermit to miss this, but what a track. Ubiquitous, and no less catchy after the 50th listen.
Bonar Bradberry – 3two5: 50% of PBR Streetgang, it’s a cut of grooving house that is both deep and energetic, and those vocals… we didn’t know Bonar had it in him!
Deadstock 33s – The Circular Path: One of many of Justin Robertson’s alter egos, this is a rollercoaster cut of acid-tinged house that makes you want to find a sweaty basement and stay there until it’s light. Genius.
Jammhot – Chrysalis: Leeds outfit debut on Saints and Sonnets sounded like 90s garage hijacked on a spaceship and brought back 20 years later. In a good way.
Dan Mangan – About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All: A great title, a total fairground of a record. Every time I listened to this, it felt like I was walking down a street to the closing titles of my own film. Superb, and cinematic.
Daft Punk – Get Lucky: Obvious, yes. Still brilliant though. However you may hate it, hearing this will always mean summer 2013.
Justin Timberlake – Suit & Tie: The album may not have lived up to it, but this was the best thing he’s done in years and showed a lot of the noisy r’n’b nonsense of late just how it should be done.
Vampire Weekend – Ya Hey: Infectious, and better than Diane Young for me. A great album from a band I couldn’t really love before, but this changed my mind completely.
Ms Mr – Hurricane: I saw them for the first time at Glastonbury, and they were brilliant. This was the standout single from an album that helped fill an LCD-shaped hole.
Jagwar Ma – What Love: Another Glastonbury epiphany, like a sweaty Aussie rave build on the Stone Roses and Madchester’s hedonism.
Phoenix – Entertainment: Opener of a poptastic album from the French outift. The video’s almost as good (and odd) as the song itself.
David Bowie – Valentine’s Day: What a comeback, and what a record. A clever pun in the chorus, and a brilliant guitar hook. It’s like 1974 all over again.
Arctic Monkeys – Do I Wanna Know: Sheffield’s finest reborn as a west-coast power pop band. Many hated it. I loved it.
Haim – Don’t Save Me: I could’ve picked about five, but this was one of a great clutch of radio-friendly songs that you can’t stop singing. Seeing them in March next year can’t come too soon.
Arcade Fire – Reflektor: The opening single of an album that’s divided opinion. But this was a statement of intent, and you can see James Murphy’s fingerprints all over it. Seven minutes plus of majesty that revealed more and more every listen.
John Grant: It may have toured Pale Green Ghosts, but both solo albums got an outing, and the fragile singer with the molasses voice proved even better live. Mesmerising.
XOYO Loves – The Coronet in November gave us DJs (Lindstrom, Waifs and Strays, Aeroplane and Greg Wilson) but it was live sets from Crazy P and Hercules and Love Affair that topped it.
The Reflektors – Ok, so Arcade Fire, but who cares? Seeing a band that big in a venue like the Roundhouse and them playing from their new album and back catalogue, while the whole crowd was dressed up like a circus…. I wish I could do gigs like this every week.
Despacio – not a gig specifically, but James Murphy and 2ManyDJs’ own disco in December was a glorious throwback to pre-superclubs, lasers, glitter cannons and jets. Just an amazing soundsystem and brilliant tunes, for 5 hours.
Glastonbury – So many bands, so many memories. Some missing ones too. Haim, Ratpack, Rolling Stones, Seasick Steve, Phoenix, Jagwar Mar, Ms Mr, Chic, New Build and all sorts of other shenanigans. Going back here reminds me there’s nowhere else that comes close to it, anywhere.