Computer Brains
Do Critics Dream of Electric Beeps?

The first electronic album I ever bought was Dig Your Own Hole by the Chemical Brothers.

Actually, that’s not true at all. I owned plenty of electronic music before “Block Rockin’ Beats” was a thing, from the likes of the Pet Shop Boys and the Art of Noise and New Order and Gary Numan and on and on. I just didn’t think of it all as electronic music until the ‘90s electronica movement took hold. And the first electronic – not electronic pop or electronic rock, but electronic – album I consciously decided to try was Dig Your Own Hole.

I’ve never regretted it. Dig is a monumental album, a watershed moment for the popularity of big-beat dance music. It’s grand and grimy and uncompromising, and it ends with the nine-minute “The Private Psychedelic Reel,” the first of the Chems’ many attempts to update “Tomorrow Never Knows” for modern audiences. I’ve been a Chemical Brothers fan ever since, sticking with them through ups (like Surrender and Further) and downs (like Push the Button). Furthermore, the Chemical Brothers opened up my ears to intelligent and interesting electronic dance music, a genre that includes now-favorites like Aphex Twin and Four Tet and Flying Lotus.

For all of their longevity, the Chemical Brothers have barely changed at all, and their stasis continues on their eighth album, Born in the Echoes. There’s nothing at all wrong with it – it’s just another Chemical Brothers album, full of thundering beats, repetitive vocals and strong hints of psychedelia. If you’ve liked them before – and I certainly have – you’ll like this. The band is tonally consistent, so the only question each time is whether they hit on the good kind of consistent, or the kind that makes you wonder when they’re going to evolve.

For the most part, Echoes stays on the good side. Opening track “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted” is classic Chemical Brothers, mechanical synths giving way to stomping drums and mantra-like vocals by Daniel Pearce. The hook is simple, and repeated until it lodges directly in the pleasure center of your brain. The song never quite explodes, building up and building up for most of its run time, but the catharsis comes next with “Go,” a marvelously danceable tune. It’s a spotlight for guest rapper Q-Tip, who crushes it, and its chorus is the album’s most infectious. (Although – and this will ruin the whole song for you – I can see a laxative company using “we’re only here to make you go” as a slogan.)

As with many Chemical Brothers albums, the thrill of this one lies in its guest spots. St. Vincent stops by “Under Neon Lights” to sing in a robotic monotone, and it works wonderfully. Saxophone wunderkind Colin Stetson adds organic intrigue to “Reflexion” and “Radiate,” while Cate Le Bon brings the title track home. But the award for best guest appearance here has to go to Beck – his tune “Wide Open” sounds like a genuine collaboration, like a track from “Morning Phase” given a skipping synth treatment. It ends this album gracefully.

Unfortunately, the songs on which Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons go it alone here are the least successful. I could live without ever hearing “Just Bang” again, and “EML Ritual” pounds its one melody into the ground. “I’ll See You There” is another one inspired by “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and it’s awesome for what it is – giant beats supporting wild backwards-sounding noises and huge torrents of effects – but it’s nothing new for them, and fails to recapture the thrill of “The Private Psychedelic Reel.”

But that’s all right. It’s now been 20 years since the Chemical Brothers burst onto the scene, and by this point, most of their contemporaries have run out of gas. The Brothers are still here, and as evidenced by the best moments of Born in the Echoes, they still have ideas worth exploring. I’m hopeful that “Go” will be a decent-sized hit for them, but even if it isn’t, I remain interested to hear whatever they do next.

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There are really only two ways you can go from the Chemical Brothers, when it comes to electronic music. The first is to become more compact and poppy, focusing on melody and structure while still creating danceable music. That’s the path taken by the likes of Passion Pit and Imogen Heap, and also by Kevin Parker, who goes by Tame Impala. Live, Tame Impala is a full-on danceable rock band, but on record Parker generally plays every instrument – he’s a one-man show, and with 2012’s Lonerism, he created a tremendous ‘60s-inspired dance album that drew critical acclaim.

I was rather looking forward to Parker’s third, Currents, and now that it’s here, I’m somewhat baffled by it. It’s fine, but it sounds very much like Parker reined in his cornucopia of sound to focus on just one or two patches and tempos. The first song, “Let It Happen,” is the best, Parker developing a strong melody over nearly eight minutes, dropping out instruments and swapping in others while the main through-line stays constant. It’s a height of compositional agility that the album never hits again – unlike on Lonerism, where songs evolved beyond their basic ideas almost as a matter of course, most of the songs on Currents stay grounded. There are several half-formed interludes, too, which only weakens Parker’s case.

This is a strikingly sad album, and I think Parker chose a monochromatic wash of tones for it on purpose – it certainly fits with the theme of loss and futility. “I know that I’ll be happier and I know you will too, eventually,” Parker sings on the vaguely Brian Wilson-esque divorce song “Eventually,” and it sounds like he’s trying to convince himself. The painful sentiments of closer “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” rub up against the minor-key bassline, concluding things on a desperate yet resigned note.

Currents isn’t an awful album, but it is a surprising one on the heels of his earlier, more kinetic efforts. It feels like a Tame Impala album with all the air sucked out of it. Currents leaves the impression that Parker is going through a difficult time, and I hope things get better for him. I’m still looking forward to another Tame Impala album, but I’m not sure I’m going to listen to this one too many more times.

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The other option for electronic music is to go further into abstraction, which has been the path taken by the Orb for more than 20 years. Alex Patterson’s indefatigable project has always taken the more meandering, ambient route, filtering in dub influences and echo-y sound bites and coming up with the most eerie sorta-dance music you’ll find anywhere. My favorite Orb album came out 20 years ago – Orbus Terrarum is one of the most abstract pieces of electronic music I know, its interlocking gears forming something massive yet, in the end, barely there.

It’s that sound that Patterson has returned to on the new Orb album, Moonbuilding 2703 AD. Over four long pieces, Patterson and co-conspirator Thomas Fehlman weave a lovely tapestry of skittering drums and long washes of sound, growing and changing each piece over its extended running time. It’s the most subtle piece of work the Orb has given us in many years, and a refreshing return to form after their recent collaborations with David Gilmour and Lee “Scratch” Perry, which resulted in decidedly un-Orb-like music.

At its best, the Orb’s work defies description – I could tell you that “God’s Mirrorball” morphs through two dozen sections and flows like liquid from one end to the other, or that “Lunar Caves” maintains a spooky atmosphere for all of its nine minutes, or that the closing title track is where it all comes together, with a more propulsive (yet still subtle) beat. But none of that will really tell you what it’s like to listen to this. Moonbuilding is the first Orb album in a long time to give me the same feeling that radiated out from their earlier work, and I’m overjoyed at its existence. It’s not one of their very best, but it is music that will widen your mind and make you feel like you’ve been somewhere entirely other. And for that, I’m happy to have it.

Next week, I go to Nashville and tell you all about it. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.