Unlike many, I like a good taking stock album. It’s understandable that a lot of people recoil at the idea of some old-timer musician releasing an album whose sole purpose is to reflect on their many failings and accomplishments. It’s indulgent and pompous, or at the very least, it can be. But to write off the whole practice would be to write off Johnny Cash’s American recordings, or Neil Young’s Silver & Gold (I bet Tom Waits would make a great one, if he could put his decades-long battle with the devil to rest for an album). One of the finest examples of this kind came out last year: Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here.
For those of us who only had a passing familiarity with Gil Scott-Heron prior to last year, I’m New Here provided an invaluable introduction. It’s an album simultaneously wizened and vital, classic and modern — the work of a born artist. Scott-Heron’s scratchy yet mellifluous voice and incomparable way with words had clearly survived longer than he expected, and his love of creation (artistic and otherwise) was still in full bloom, no matter how tragic or lonely the subject matter. Musically, Scott-Heron managed to stay surprisingly up-to-date, occasionally injecting his grizzled hip-hop blues with strains of spare, spooked-out electronic that could easily be the work of DJ/rupture.
Perhaps emboldened by those dubby moments, Jamie of the XX saw the opportunity to remake the whole album in that image. And so we have We’re New Here, Jamie XX’s full album remix of I’m New Here that also features samples of Scott-Heron’s older work. This, even more so than the idea of a taking stock album, is a tricky endeavor. Full album remixes almost invariably fail to live up to the precedent set by the original album (I’d be happy to hear examples to the contrary, but none are coming to me now). Then again, full album remixes are usually done by a variety of artists with very few of the artists actually working in concert with each other. Maybe Jamie XX has reason to believe that taking on the project alone can make it more cohesive than most similar efforts.
We’re New Here does indeed turn out to be quite cohesive, but it still runs into its fair share of predictable problems. For starters, We’re New Here never quite overcomes the “what the fuck do Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX have to do with each other?” factor. The icy, European cool of the XX crossed with the bohemian, street poetry of Scott-Heron are not the most logical mix. However, Jamie XX frequently and cleverly surmounts that problem with a simple solution; he ignores it.
This makes for a difficult album to critique. The most enjoyable moments on We’re New Here occur when Jamie XX almost flat-out ditches the pretense of remixing I’m New Here, and just auditions himself as a electronic producer. Jamie XX makes “Running” a burbling, ominous trance with a heavily repeated vocal hook that nearly overwhelms Scott-Heron’s musings. “My Cloud” effectively captures the romance in Scott-Heron’s voice, pitching it into a low-key, stuttering shuffle.
Yet, too often, Jamie XX makes Gil Scott-Heron’s original album and vocals seem like an afterthought. I’m New Here highlight “NY is Killing Me” retains none of its charm here. Jamie XX reduces it to a skittery, dubstep number replete with irritating squeaky voices. And on “Ur Soul and Mine”, Scott-Heron’s nearly absent, save for some inaudible mumbling deep in the mix. Obviously, Jamie XX had to put his own stamp on this album, but this is the rare remix album that could stand to show a little more reverence to the original work. Still, if nothing else, We’re New Here is sufficient evidence that the guy’s definitely got a future outside of the XX.