Warhol Without the Wackos: Underworld’s Beaucoup Fish

There’s always been something different about Underworld, the three cunning Englishmen who in the 90′s have had their way with U.K. beat culture, recasting it as their own aloof, sexy playground. In public and the press, they’ve done a good impersonation of casually acquainted chaps who only happen to work together as celebrated bandmates and remixers: There’s Darren Emerson, already a deejay prodigy of European clubland when lured into Underworld nine years ago, a 28-year-old who usually sports intense gazes and cool, minimalist expressions. There’s Karl Hyde, Underworld’s front man, usually more buried chanter of free verse than up-front singer, a loquacious sort who’s fond of the jet-set fashions and values common to international pop stars. And then there’s Rick Smith, a collaborator of Mr. Hyde’s since the early 80′s, when as Freur they enjoyed a couple of switched-on, larky Euro-hits before morphing into an earlier version of Underworld that is always compared to Eurythmics, and loudly lamented. (It was something for which the press once scolded Underworld. But now, with the equally rock-tainted Norman Cook-a.k.a. Fatboy Slim-the toast of frat parties and critics’ top-10 lists nationwide, that complaint has faded.) Invariably, Mr. Smith, in his sensible eyeglasses and cable knits, offers the impression of devoting his free time to bibliographies of Edmund Spenser.

In England, the boys in Underworld have always recorded not for some swell major but Junior Boy’s Own, the brilliant indie label that made key creative hay of the English Acid House movement. Beaucoup Fish (Junior Boy’s Own/V2), their third album, appears here on Virgin Records founder Richard Branson’s newish BMG-distributed major. Late in 1998, they released J.B.O.: A Retrospective , which successfully demonstrates the label’s acumen for club music as sweaty as it is artful, Underworld very much the kings of the sequence. But the trio’s preceding two albums-1993′s Dubnobasswithmyheadman and 1996′s eerily refined Second Toughest in the Infants -made do with U.S. distribution on TVT Records, a New York-based indie that got on the map packaging collections of old TV themes and, later, signed Moby, once thought to be U.S. techno’s Elvis-apparent.

The relative mess of Underworld’s label history, though, comports with their business-creative modus operandi: Working out of an organization they call Tomato, whose graphic design wing has enjoyed commissions from pop-cult behemoths like Nike, Messrs. Hyde, Smith and Emerson have always pursued their pop music interests just as they have wished, ignoring conventional record company counsel or niceties.

When I spoke to Mr. Hyde shortly after the release of Second Toughest in the Infants , he said that one of the chief things that inspired him about Acid House was its obliviousness to whatever the pop industry and press thought. He “loved that,” he said, and valued highly how Acid House tracks, which he said “went straight from the writer to the record-buying public without the middleman,” did so minus, as he put it, “any media context to live, to breathe, to proliferate.” He found this in sharp contrast to punk, which, he said, acted so independent and rebellious, yet in fact happily slept with rock critics and record executives. A Miles Davis worshipper, Mr. Hyde, now pushing 40, seems to lace his thoroughly 90′s technological zeal with a 60′s-style iconoclasm. He ended up comparing Tomato, in fact, to the New York saint of 60′s do-your-own-thing artistic-commercialism, Andy Warhol. But he also sounded like a latter-day John Cleese who was down with Björk’s latest remixers.

“Essentially, I think of myself as a member of Tomato,” Mr. Hyde admitted. “And Underworld [as being] a very public wing of Tomato, in the sense that it is an access point for a lot of people to discover the many rooms of Tomato. We’re not just an ad company making great adverts. We’re not just sculptors or book writers or filmmakers. We’re the sum of all these things, which makes us all better for it, I think. You know, the experience of being in each other’s companies …” Mr. Hyde finally took a breath. “In a way, it’s a bit like Warhol’s Factory, without the wackos.”

Beaucoup Fish appears after the Great Electronica Hype of 1997, when much of the U.S. pop industry and press-Mr. Hyde, with his low appreciation of both, couldn’t have scripted it better-contrived to believe the numbingly literal-minded notion that British-sired 90′s techno-pop would take over young American ears. The view was always as wrongheaded as the current one, which is that electronica failed, a conclusion only arrived at if you ever believed in the first place that American radio stations would program round-the-clock beats-per-minute rage.

In fact, a conceptual revolution has occurred with regard to technology among American listeners, who now pick and choose from an ever-widening variety of musical styles. Pop technology now runs everything , not just the velvet-rope disco party of the 70′s. Even the abrasive “dance-pop” of the 80′s has found its way into the harder world of hip-hop, always so keen on “keeping it real” (consider Puff Daddy sliding David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” into one of his jams). It’s the plain recognition that, in such an age, music with bleeps, blorps, samples, scratches, synth washes and electronic hiccups, whatever their place in the mix, is as natural as publishing on computers. As Michael Gordon writes in the liner notes to Reich Remixed (Nonesuch), a beautiful collection of artists like Tranquility Bass and Howie B. fooling with bits of compositions by the prescient American composer Steve Reich, “Technology itself is now in an exalted state.” That is so true, in fact, that even when someone takes the pure analog route-i.e., Neil Young singing “Sugar Mountain” on stage with only an acoustic guitar for accompaniment-the technology seems conspicuous by its absence.

Turning this notion around-forcing you to hear everything, from rock to cool jazz to soundtrack music to pop hooks to dance beats to odd combinations thereof and beyond, from the naked point of view of the technological-is what Underworld has always attempted. In this regard, jams of theirs like “Cups” or “Jumbo,” with its Reich-like use of old tapes of Cajun fishermen marveling over the ” beaucoup fish” they might catch, are ur-90′s pop. They say: We want you to hear our remix of older styles of music, or of the found music in everyday talk.

Like their previous albums, Beaucoup Fish is plenty brilliant, although perhaps not as surprising as their debut, or as consistently otherworldly as the second album. Underworld doesn’t screw around with technology the way U2 or Garbage or Blur have; instead, they seek to perfect something of what technology in its “exalted state” now offers. For Underworld, remixing simply provides more chances to get things right. No better proof of that currently exists than The K & D Sessions (!K7) a collection of remixes of hip-hop and post-techno artists by the Viennese team of Peter Kruder and Richard Dorfmeister, who unveil a spooky command of river-deep soulfulness.

But let’s get down to business: Will Underworld sell? “Bruce Lee,” which they call a “diversion,” could. It’s a snappy little number made out of riffs that recall the hooks of many old hip-hop records, and it’s at least as catchy as “Born Slippy,” the magnetic series of blips and beats and vocal outbursts that found a small place in the sun for itself through the Trainspotting soundtrack. Another possibility might be “King of Snake,” which resurrects the famous wall of disco lava that Giorgio Moroder gave Donna Summer on “I Feel Love.” Still, Underworld-well, they’re a little different. They think they can take over the world by not taking over the world. It’s that austere side of theirs. They definitely party like it’s 1999. But they can do without the wackos.