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Review: The Chemical Brothers’ ‘Echoes’ Are a Little Too Familiar

The Chemical Brothers
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: July 17, 2015
Label: Astralwerks

In a recent interview with the Guardian, the Chemical Brothers’ Ed Simons noted that his work with partner Tom Rowlands has lasted “longer than quite a lot of marriages.” He’s right. The two first met at the University of Manchester in 1988, and have conquered the world several times over in the years that followed. Albums like Exit Planet Dust (1995) and Dig Your Own Hole (1997) are widely regarded as electronic-music cornerstones, while efforts like Surrender (1999) and Come with Us (2001) are peppered with plenty of classic cuts.

Still, it’s been nearly 15 years since the Chemical Brothers have released anything truly essential, and the duo’s latest full-length, Born in the Echoes, doesn’t break that streak. The record does solidify Simons’ marriage analogy, albeit perhaps not in the way he imagined. Born in the Echoes sounds like an old couple that’s been together forever, gotten comfortable, and settled into a routine.

In fairness, there’s something refreshing about this approach. It would have been easy for the pair to attempt some kind of modern, EDM-friendly reinvention — after all, they have been serving up bombastic, festival-ready tunes for more than two decades — but Born in the Echoes too often sounds like just another Chemical Bothers record.

As such, a few songs do manage to capture some of the group’s old magic. “Reflexion” is the album’s best offering, a driving piece of widescreen techno highlighted by pitch-bent synths and waves of distortion. Similarly brawny is the album’s title track, an enjoyable piece of psychedelic pop that layers a detached vocal from Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon over what sounds like a beefed-up instrumental from the Broadcast archives.

Turning back to the dance floor, “EML Ritual” storms through five-plus minutes of tweaky, acid-tinged house without being dragged down by what’s supposed to be a freaky vocal from English singer-songwriter Ali Love. Album closer “Wide Open” has the opposite problem, as not even Beck at his moody best can liven up what’s ultimately a too-generic piece of pop-house; but much better is “Just Bang,” a percussion-heavy club track that successfully mines the past while interestingly marrying old-school hip-hop drums, early Chicago house and the sample-heavy ethos of classic U.K. hardcore.

Unfortunately, many of the album’s club bangers aren’t so effective. “I’ll See You There” also turns back the clock, specifically toward the Chemical Brothers’ own Electronic Battle Weapon 12-inch series, but its psychedelic freakout and “more is more” approach is more mess than masterpiece. “Under Neon Nights” suffers from a similar fate, as the disjointed composition pairs a generic vocal turn from St. Vincent with funky ‘70s guitar licks before some Ed Banger-lite electro crunch is enlisted to muddy up the proceedings. LP opener “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted” also employs this formula, with slightly better results, but fails to leave much of an impression.

That’s certainly not the case with “Go,” Born in the Echoes’ slickly produced first single. Coming across as a bizarre attempt at modern-day radio pop, it’s packed with canned “oh-oooh” samples, laser-like synths and paint-by-numbers guest raps from Q-Tip (who seems to be doing his best Black Eyed Peas impression). Perhaps this was an attempt to revisit the success of “Galvanize” (from 2004’s Push the Button), but at least that song had a charming sense of swagger; “Go” sounds soullessly custom-designed for sports arenas.

Misfires aside, it’s tough to dispute that although Born in the Echoes may not be a great album, it is generally a competent one. The Chemical Brothers may not be aging particularly well, but on the whole, at least they’re aging gracefully.