The cover of Underworld’s third album is a rich, tranquilizing ocean blue. The British techno trio used variations on this color for the artwork of a previous disc and for the single of their Trainspotting hit ”Born Slippy.” But the aqua of ”Beaucoup Fish” is deeper and frostier. It’s cool in the old-school sense — the cool Webster’s defines as ”employing understatement and a minimum of detail to convey information” and ”marked by steady dispassionate calmness and self-control.”
Even if blue simply happens to be one of Underworld’s favorite colors, there’s something symbolic about their choice. Whereas recent techno offshoots like big beat are making gate-crashing artistic and commercial breakthroughs by taking on a charming loutishness, ”Beaucoup Fish” strips the music back down to frigid basics. It picks up where founding fathers like Brian Eno and Kraftwerk left off by concentrating on pared-down, melodic pieces, complete with what could be construed as verses and choruses (never a mark of electronica). The album is — dare it be said — adult, and it marks yet another engrossing chapter in the perpetual evolution of techno, electronica, or whatever term you prefer for this ever-mutating genre.
Since their first album in 1994, Underworld (synthesist-programmers Hyde, Darren Emerson, and Rick Smith) have been steadily streamlining, culminating in the melancholic ping-pong of ”Born Slippy.” But ”Beaucoup Fish” feels like a stimulating new beginning. Wipe away its dusting of frost and you’ll encounter mystery, beauty, and alluring rhapsodies, with the warm, pulsating beats serving as the music’s heart.
Luckily, none of this is New Agey; if anything, Underworld still revel in messing with our heads. The unstoppable-train wail of ”Moaner” and chain-gang rhythm of ”Bruce Lee” testify to the trio’s need to lead us to the dance floor as much as to the chill-out room. Granted, a few tracks plow on a few minutes longer than necessary. But ”Beaucoup Fish” has a cohesiveness and consistency absent from too many electronica albums.
And it couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Ever since the ”next big thing” media barrage of two years ago (yes, EW covered that waterfront too), electronica has endured the inevitable post-hype backlash. Some of it has been justified (the genre has spewed out its share of tedious, derivative crap), and some of it has been ridiculous: No one should have ever expected such amelodic music to top anything, except perhaps the playlists of daring college- radio stations. ”Beaucoup Fish,” however, gently tweaks the naysayers by demonstrating how many more places this music can wander, how it can grow and reinvent itself. Albums like this (and Fatboy Slim’s kaleidoscopic ”You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby”) are comparable to Lauryn Hill’s recent work in the way they make an overly familiar style of music seem vital again. In its own lush, detached manner, ”Beaucoup Fish” is the rebirth of the cool.