It's a lot easier to surprise people with your first album than it is to surprise them with your fourth album. Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons must know that. In the last seven years, they've gone from an underground phenomenon to a worldwide sensation -- bridgehead of the much-hyped electronica explosion that, unfortunately, never actually happened. They've ambled quietly into the mainstream, and these days it's disconcertingly easy to think of them as yesterday's news. And yesterday's news is never surprising.
Fortunately, Come With Us is not a wholesale disappointment. Though marred by a few missteps, it's mostly enjoyable, if unchallenging. Unlike labelmate Fatboy Slim, whose recent, tepid Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars suggested that his creative juices were as tapped as a junkie's veins, the Chemical Brothers still have some interesting ideas. In fact, there are moments on Come With Us that recapture the feverish excitement of their debut, Exit Planet Dust. There just aren't quiet enough of those moments, and very little evidence of artistic growth.
The Brothers have a history of front-loading their records, burning off three killer tracks in a row to hook listeners. In this respect, Come With Us delivers perhaps the best opening since Exit. The title/lead track is energized by a bowed string sample, which builds for more than a minute, finally expanding into a loose, mid-tempo groove that suggests a less-cluttered version of "Song to the Siren", shot through with rising and falling synth glissandos. First single "It Began in Afrika" picks up the pace, enlivened by hand-drum samples, a throbbing beat and the infamous voice sample that stutters through its title. There's even a pleasantly twanky, spluttering 303 freakout near the end, after which the tempo none-too-subtly slows, allowing the song to dovetail into the breakbeat-driven "Galaxy Bounce". By far the busiest, sexiest and most dancefloor-friendly portion of the triptych, "Galaxy Bounce" sounds like nothing so much as P-Funk attempting to cover Front 242's "Welcome to Paradise". It works surprisingly well, but ends too quickly.
The unabashedly glittery disco anthem "Star Guitar" is crying out for a guest vocal from New Order's Bernard Sumner, who guested to impressive effect on Surrender's "Out of Control". Don't hold your breath; though you'll hear some voices buried between buttery synth chords, that's the extent of the singing. You'll detect looped vocals in the pleasantly schizophrenic "Hoops", but they're not important; concentrate on the post-millennial breakdance rhythm. Save your attention for "My Elastic Eye", another wander-round-the-musical map that's almost undone by the annoyingly nasal analog synth that leads it. Don't listen if you have a headache.
Hide the firearms -- there's a Beth Orton ballad coming up. Why is there another Beth Orton ballad on Come With Us? Do Tom and Ed feel obliged to give a shot in the arm to the career they helped start? Were they blackmailed into including "The State We're In"? Or have Beth Orton's records been flying off record shop shelves and I've just been too wrapped up in myself to notice? Regardless, "The State We're In" is to Come With Us as a brick wall is to motorway traffic. It takes the energy level, already flagging from the non-booty-shaking-friendly "My Elastic Eye", and drives it into the ground like a cheap tent spike. The gradual segue into the far more dancefloor-friendly "Denmark" fools no-one; despite its disco beats, reverse-gated Nile Rodgers-y bassline, sampled sax, faux electric guitar noodling and rave-whistles, the track never develops a proper hook. It squanders its single buildup of energy, and the most interesting sound it can offer is a brief, much-repeated sample of a hesitant automobile engine.
"Private Psychedelic Reel" fans may enjoy the sunny, trippy "Pioneer Skies", but like most of the album's second half, it's an idea without a climax. "The Test", the disc's closer, at least provides a big finish, though it's conceptually similar to "Illuminate" from Orbital's recent The Altogether. Whereas "Illuminate" featured the less-than-riveting David Gray as a guest vocalist, "The Test" puts Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft in the driver's seat, to marginally better effect. Even so, without its energetic breakbeats, the song would be a snoozer.
Though uneven, Come With Us is far from the unmitigated suckfest that many artists are regurgitating at the four-album mark -- but still depressingly bereft of new ideas. There are a few interesting sound collisions here -- the string sample on "Come With Us", for instance, and the dog-like noise in "Hoops" -- but repeat listening reveals a conspicuous lack of truly exciting, ground-breaking concepts; as a whole, the disc sounds as if it was inspired more by contractual obligations than creative fervor. It's a testament to Tom and Ed's abilities that many of the album's problems can be resolved simply by bumping the volume up a notch or two, but the Brothers would have been better off trimming the fat, releasing Come With Us as a stellar stopgap EP, and then hiding out in Nepal for six months while they prepped a truly original follow-up.