The Middle of Nowhere

The Chemical Brothers
(Freestyle Dust/Astralwerks)

Electronica, no matter how it's been sliced and diced over the years--from techno to rave to ambient to jungle--remains constant in at least one factor: the ability of the music to appeal to ever-changing moods. It can be brainy one minute, a house party of sweaty hell the next. And it doesn't matter where the inspiration comes from (spiritual quests and drug-induced visions are one and the same in the electro-universe); in the end, modern electronic music is just the evolution of its basic tracks.

Orbital, who's been making records for a decade now, is very well aware that the times they are a-changin'. Early works by the duo were club-fueled rave machines that crammed in as many bpms as their machines would allow. Pioneer of the current scene, as well as a consistent shaper of the music within it, Orbital has yet to make its definitive electronic statement. The Middle of Nowhere, its fifth album, sweeps the field in search of the perfect groove and sucks in a world of influence and study into its eight tracks. Shifting among electro's various progeny (really, only the names have been changed), Orbital breathes life into the often-stifling genre by continually moving.

The space-age jazz of "Way Out" collides with the dance-floor buzz saws of "I Don't Know You People" with precision and acuity, but it's all part of The Middle of Nowhere's master plan to mix things up at the core. This isn't the genre milestone Orbital may have been looking for, but by tossing in the kitchen sink and then some (now-electronic staples, like DJ spins and female backing vocals), it may be as close as it's going to come to one. The heart of this music still isn't evident; it is what you make of it. And Orbital gives the listener plenty of headroom in which to work it all out.

On their third album, Surrender, the Chemical Brothers--British revisionist DJs Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons--scour electronic music's roots by going back to the future. Years ahead of their peers (their 1995 debut, Exit Planet Dust, was one of the first albums to show electronica's musical and spiritual potential through melodic and fanciful depth), Rowlands and Simons are out to prove with this exceptional album that techno isn't just for club kids anymore.

Not that there aren't plenty of ass-shaking grooves to be found on Surrender. "Music: Response" and "Hey Boy Hey Girl" are all about post-rave culture. Sonic sirens, dusty samples, and bpms are overdriven to a musical and spiritual ecstasy. The brainy mien of the music--the robotic, Afrika Bambaataa homage "Music: Response"; the beeping, ingratiating riff that steers "The Sunshine Underground"--is a presence, but much of Surrender can be enjoyed without busting too many medulla oblongatas.

Like the Brothers' previous two efforts (Dig Your Own Hole was their second, and breakthrough, album), Surrender features a mountain of guest vocalists doing that guest vocalist thing. Trip-hopping folky Beth Orton has been replaced by Mazzy Star's occasionally graceless Hope Sandoval as the female singer of choice, and Oasis's Noel Gallagher returns for a spin through "Let Forever Be," another Beatles retread--surprise. (The performances of Gallagher, Rowlands, and Simons here lack the spark of the first collaboration, the dazzling "Setting Sun.") And New Order's Bernard Sumner checks in with a lackluster tune as well.

But it's the Chemicals' big-beat operations and electronic overloads that fuel Surrender. The sunshine underground (which they celebrate on one of the album's best cuts) sparkles brightly. They hold back on the commercial aspirations that Fatboy Slim has picked up and really don't do anything much differently from their own past. Surrender may be a bit of a retread, but the vision detailed through all the beats and electronic power surges boldly announces that Rowlands and Simons have yet to give up their souls.

--Michael Gallucci

The Flaming Lips
The Soft Bulletin
(Warner Bros.)

The Flaming Lips have spent nearly fifteen years stretching the confines of pop music, sometimes subtly (1994's blip-on-the-radio-chart "She Don't Use Jelly") and sometimes with an almost unheard-of sense of ambition (1997's four-CD release Zaireeka). The Soft Bulletin, the Oklahoma City band's latest, touches on all of the records the Lips have released this decade.

The Soft Bulletin condenses Zaireeka's sensory overload into a made-for-headphones listening experience, alternating between lush, piano-laden numbers and catchy pop rock. Despite their complexity, the songs make a strong emotional impact, thanks to a crisper sound that couldn't rise above the distortion of 1995's Clouds Taste Metallic. Pared down to a trio after the departure of guitarist Ronald Jones, the Lips willingly follow any paths the songs might offer, almost always arriving at something worthwhile.

Although probably unintentional, the spirit of the Beach Boys' most adventurous work hovers over The Soft Bulletin. "Buggin" sets lovely vocal harmonies over harp flourishes, a sweet piano melody, and lyrics that make mosquito bites sound appealing. The Baroque orchestral beginning of "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton" makes perfect sense in this context, as do the funky detours in "The Spark That Bled," which imagines Brian Wilson as a '70s soul troubadour.

The band's newly audible bottom end keeps the toe a-tapping. "What Is the Light" is constructed in a symphonic style similar to Built to Spill's Perfect From Now On, as strings and bass scales gradually fill the crannies around singer Wayne Coyne's oddly melodic vocal. A muddy kick-drum pattern segues into "The Observer," a haunting, mostly instrumental wall of symphonic sound. The band can be found really messing around with song structure to fascinating effect on "Suddenly Everything Has Changed," which seems to use a new sound or texture at every possible opportunity.

The Soft Bulletin is one of the Flaming Lips' most wholeheartedly listenable records and another step up the ladder toward pop perfection. These fifteen years have been good ones.

--Jonathan Cohen

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