A deeper look at the grooves pressed into the 2LP reissue of Dig Your Own Hole by The Chemical Brothers.
…And then, with the release of Dig Your Own Hole, The Chemical Brothers became a pop culture phenomenon. Now, it could be contended that the arrival and immediate public embrace of Dig Your Own Hole was the result of several different factors intersecting (after grunge, Brit-Pop overtook both the charts and popular imagination thanks to bands including Blur, Oasis and The Prodigy, electronic dance music and rave culture reached a level of attention that they could no longer fly under the radar, and so on), but the truth is that it all boiled down to the laughably simple fact that – whether by accident or design – The Chemical Brothers had discovered a way to infuse their very electronic and club-based music with instantly memorable pop hooks and condense the expansive dynamics of their music down into tight and memorable blasts capable of playing on radio and music television, and getting stuck in the minds of those exposed to it. It was just that simple; the timing and taste was right for it, so The Chemical Brothers crossed over into the pop spectrum.
The moment that “Block Rockin’ Beats” opens the A-side of the album, those who followed The Chemical Brothers from Exit Planet Dust in hopes of at leave something comparable to the group’s debut will happily discover that they have no difficulty marking the group’s great and obvious turn toward pop. “Block Rockin’ Beats” presents itself as a hard-hitting standalone single straight away (the difference is simple: everything on Exit Planet Dust featured segues in and out of each song to just make it feel like a single extended exercise – but “Block Rockin’ Beats has a hard beginning and end) which could easily make a play for radio broadcast as well as on any number of music television outlets because it neatly fit into the FM radio paradigm (the song is five minutes and fourteen seconds long which does push the four-minute norm a bit, but not to unreasonable lengths) and feels as though it was EQ’ed to lock perfectly between Blur (say, “Song 2,” perhaps), Radiohead and Marilyn Manson on any number of time period playlists. Here, that sample of a lean bass riff plays with a punchy, tight and rocky swing and makes it possible for all those kids who had discovered the club scene but hadn’t quite figured out how to reconcile rock’s sex appeal with electronic’s keen delivery yet to find a way in. On “Block Rockin’ Beats,” Chemical Brothers make the balance easy; that bass riff supports and informs the electronic elements in the song and those electronic bits are the things which move the song along. That dynamic might sound disarmingly simple in print, and it proves to be exactly that in practice; electronica was still the “new hip thing” in 1997 and its creation was still something of a mystery to those on the outside looking in, but having that bass line in place makes the music accessible because it directs how the song develops.
With “Block Rockin’ Beats” offering listeners that bass line as a point of accessibility into the machinations of the record, the title track follows up and wastes no time building more adventurous structures around the opening track’s established form. There’s no denying that the samples in “Block Rockin’ Beats” are propulsive, but the much more impressive presentation which comes with “Dig Your Own Hole.” Simply said, where “Block Rockin’ Beats” presents a textbook electronica track in a rock context, “”Dig Your Own Hole” is a concept unto itself complete with much more industrious arrangements (the samples employed feature a much larger sonic palette with more impressively arranged structures) and an unrelenting drive. As was the case on the reissue of Exit Planet Dust, the A-side of Dig Your Own Hole features just two tracks, but to say but to say that Dig Your Own Hole opens bigger and more powerfully than its predecessor feels like an almost comical understatement.
Of course, the power and weight of Dig Your Own Hole‘s A-side is undeniable and impressive, but just how impressive is reflected in the fact that, while the three songs on the album’s B-side feature some pretty jaw-dropping elements, they’ve regularly gone completely overshadowed by the one-two punch of “Block Rockin’ Beats” and “Dig Your Own Hole.” Even so though, particularly in the context of this new vinyl reissue, the three songs which populate the B-side benefit from the added light shone on them and prove to be absolutely deserving of it; in fact, they prove to be gems which have gone largely overlooked.
The unintelligible vocal which rides along on top of “Elektrobank” – which opens the B-side – is a true, frenetic, work of art when left to shine as it is on this new reissue. Here, the skittering and really, really lean beats which open the track intermingle beautifully with the track’s nasal, sort of honk-y bass line, and the results are instantly attractive to any listener who loved Mike Watt’s work both with The Minutemen as well as that which appeared on Ballhog or Tugboat; there’s an intoxicating and infectious aspect about the rhythm figure which was definitely overlooked on the original CD release of the album, but really has the chance to shine here. The same proves to be true of the very stoned, trip-hoppy second track, “Piko” (although, to be fair, the almost skip-sounding hiccough which appeared forty-two seconds into the song on this critic’s review copy did threaten to confuse the song’s focus), but of course there’s no denying the “other” barn-burning single, “Setting Sun,” which closes the album’s B-side. There (while I must confess that the song has never been my favorite), Oasis’ Noel Gallagher chips a fairly dazed, slightly stoned vocal take in on top of a squalling (but not squalid) recurring Eastern horns sample and truly urgent drums, and that sets the song up with an inherent tension which keeps the hypnotic quality about the album’s first side going – although more from a “club” standpoint than a “radio” one. It would be easy to understand how such a dynamic might not inspire a tremendous amount of interest many years after the song’s release [other than for club history neophytes, “Setting Sun” is the definition of a deep cut –ed] but, because it is arranged in a manner which keeps the song caustic and impossible to ignore, it can still inspire listeners to get the second vinyl pane set to play and keep Dig Your Own Hole‘s energy up after “Setting Sun” is exhausted; there is an understated hook about it which can keep listeners engaged regardless of whether they’re new fans who are listening to the album for the first time, or they’re longtime fans who are listening for the thousandth time.
…And those who do continue with The C-side of Dig Your Own Hole will find that they’re richly rewarded – although certainly not in the way they may first expect. As soon as a stylus finds “It Doesn’t Matter,” listeners will know that The Chemical Brothers haven’t simply fallen into a habit of producing soundalike radio hits in order to fill in time or space, in fact they’ve remained on the dance floor in hopes of catering that fanbase first. To that end, there is no hard beginning or end to any of the tracks on the C- or D-side of the album really – all of the songs (easy-to-spot examples would be the progression between “”Don’t Stop The Rock” and “Get Up On It Like This,” “Lost In The K-Hole” and “Where Do I Begin”) just sort of run together and do progress but do not break stride or attempt to do anything as trite as produce another “radio single.” Rather, the idea is simply to keep the party moving constantly – regardless of having to change the side – which the second LP does, very ably, until “The Private Psychedelic Reel” just sort of sputters to a close and leaves listeners to either collect themselves on their own or just bask in the afterglow of the experience as they choose. Really, there’s no denying that the D-side’s end is a soft one no matter how one chooses to slice it – but the amount of energy required to make it there is so great that it’s still permissible.
With all of the above on the record (no pun intended), it goes without saying that some readers will be asking what relevance Dig Your Own Hole bears now, twenty years after it was first released, and the answer to that is simple: while no one really expects that an album which cut it on the dancefloor twenty years ago (or in the pop market, for that matter) could do so now without being laughed out of the room, that does not mean there aren’t a multitude of things which can’t be learned from it. Dig Your Own Hole did get The Chemical Brothers a foothold onto both the radio and television airwaves, after all, and that was basically uncharted territory for the music, back then. Simply put, Dig Your Own Hole set a really important precedent for electronic music and dance music alike; suddenly, it was no longer disposable or limited to the moment that people heard it at the club, it had a lasting presence and could exert an influence on other artists both on the scene at the time as well as those coming up through the ranks behind it. It continues to be possible to hear the influence of Dig Your Own Hole in clubs in spirit – if not necessarily in tangible fact, and that’s incredible. Incredible too is the fact that The Chemical Brothers had not even reached their own creative summit with this release – they were only just beginning to break through. [BILL ADAMS]
The vinyl reissue of The Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.