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Review: Primal Scream Do the Safety Dance on ‘Chaosmosis’

Primal Scream at Glastonbury Festival 2013 - Day 3
GLASTONBURY, ENGLAND - JUNE 29: Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream performs on the Pyramid Stage during day 3 of the 2013 Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 29, 2013 in Glastonbury, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: March 18, 2016
Label: First International

Primal Scream should not be the kind of band people still care about, much less one who in 2016 gets to handpick Sky Ferreira and HAIM to take a break from sophomore-album woodshedding and act as duet partners. These guys, after all, named their debut album Sonic Flower Groove in 1987; the Spin Doctors called, yada yada yada. They came up with Madchester and hung in there through shoegaze and big beat, despite more than one ill-advised attempt to do for Britain what the Black Crowes did Stateside (which was — respectfully — nothing).

Bobby Gillespie has always wanted us to fancy him a chameleon, but over the last decade or so, he’s barely changed colors. At this point it’s simply Not New that he marries rock’n’roll (which doesn’t just mean Black Crowes — dude covered Lemmy in 1997) to synths and programming. He’s been an untamed impala, a high-def TV on satellite radio, a five-channel 120-watt LCD sound system for decades while other indie-rock troubadours were just dipping their toes into Aphex Twin.

But the soundscaping that began with early triumph Screamadelica peaked with 1997’s atomic dub odyssey Vanishing Point and 2000’s future-shock firestorm XTRMNTR — maybe you can stretch that arc to include parts of 2002’s even darker and more suffocating Evil Heat. Since then, the Primal Scream idea has been S-O-N-G-S for a few albums now, with a flair for aural décor that beats that of most 53-year-olds. Beautiful Future from 2008 was pared-down krautrock in a candy shell, and 2013’s disparate More Light flirted with mariachi. The new Chaosmosis has a crossover sheen to it, which means it’s too clean-scrubbed for its own good, but it still doesn’t feel like anything else in 2016. To wit: It sounds like the Soup Dragons. Primal Scream are the rightful heirs of the Most Anachronistic Band title from the Flamin’ Groovies, who would famously change stripes (garage, psych-rock, power-pop) almost like clockwork behind the times.

So at this point in time, this band is less psychedelic than Stone Temple Pilots; “Trippin’ on Your Love” wouldn’t know a hole in a paper heart if it spiraled down one. But it turns out Gillespie’s rounded-off edges are more flavorful than most people his age, or maybe so few alt-rock stalwarts are using wah-wah and congas in 2016 that these clichés have taken on new resonance, just as Destroyer’s Kenny G-styled soprano sax did in 2011 or Oneohtrix Point Never’s new-age deconstructions have throughout the 2010s. The driving electro-pop of “(Feeling Like A) Demon Again” that follows is unsavvy enough to stand out on its own half-dated terms and also because it’s a solid tune.

The creeping lounge pretensions of the sticky “I Can Change” get as much out of too-bright MIDI-ballpark organ as the chorus of “Trippin’” does from the Eastern-tinged strings that bend it ever so slightly. By the time HAIM shows up on “100% or Nothing,” it’s clear this band’s 11th go-round is a pop album out of time, even if they don’t sound particularly “collaborative” backing up these engaging minor vets. Ferreira’s duet “Where the Light Gets In” fares much better, combining rave elements from different eras and some that never were, folding in acoustic guitar and ricocheting minor chords that help a song zag where many longtime fans would assume it would’ve hopelessly zigged. They flawlessly set up the two-minute, NIN-lite “When the Blackout Meets the Fallout” that would’ve been dandy on Evil Heat.

If the band could’ve gotten through the final third, which begins with the too-easy “Carnival of Fools,” they might have gotten away with their best album since Heat itself. By then the songwriting winds down into what you’d expect, and the sonics find themselves not proving enough either. They’re free, to do what they want, any old time. And it costs them.