ALBUM REVIEW: Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx - We're New Here

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B- | XL | 2.22.11 | MOG | AMAZON | INSOUND

On “I’ve Been Me,” the penultimate track of Gil Scott-Heron’s fantastic 2010 album I’m New Here, he states it simply: “If I hadn’t been as eccentric, as obnoxious, as arrogant, as aggressive, as introspective, as selfish – I wouldn’t be me, I wouldn’t be who I am.” On Jamie xx’s remix album, We’re New Here, that track comes third, backed with a bongo beat. It’s a fitting distillation of the album’s mission statement: This is not Gil Scott-Heron being who he has always been.

Making a remix album is always a questionable decision. Remixes themselves are so hit and miss that an entire album full of the re-commissioned tracks, more often than not, just leaves the listener wishing they had put on the original album in the first place. Even well done remix albums – say, Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm Remixed – have a peaks and valleys landscape, with particular tracks standing out. I can think of very few remix efforts (hi Four Tet x Madvillain!) that are outstanding across the board.

But then again, there is perhaps no current artist begging to be remixed more than Gil Scott-Heron. His ultra-minimalist, spoken word style is ripe for the plundering, ready to have a deft artist excavate his verses and put them on exhibit in a museum of sound.

That is exactly what Jamie xx has done here; he has recontextualized Gil Scott Heron’s voice, focusing on I’m New Here but including snippets from Scott-Heron’s earlier, more seminal works as well. Some may lament the loss of some of Gil’s edge, but they are missing the point. If the goal of a remix album was to retain the sonics and mood of the original, there would be no place for such records. Instead, the purpose is to take the spirit and poetry of Gil Scott Heron to places –and audiences – they’ve never been before. In that effort We’re New Here is an absolute success.

I’ll focus on two tracks from the album, tracks four and five, that are absolutely fantastic – a flawless confluence of styles blending two artists, young and old, organic and synthetic without a hitch. “Running” finds a home in slooping synths and heavy beats, broken only by Gil Scott-Heron’s gritty, well-worn voice. The beat hammers in a repetitive manner, while Scott-Heron moves forward, ever forward, decrying the practice of running away from your problem. “I always feel like running,” he says. “Not away, because there is no such place.” The song builds to a ticking climax until Scott-Heron gives Jamie permission to drop the beat: “Run.” This song is the perfect example of how the pair can mesh brilliantly, as if an epic spoken word intro to a hip hop song has been extended into a standalone piece, creating a track that maintains energy and motion throughout.

The following song, “My Cloud,” takes a track not originally included on Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here and gives it the best Four Tet treatment that Jamie xx can muster; I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me it actually was Kieran Hebdan behind the knobs on this one. Here we see Scott-Heron in a different light, no longer the cigarette tattered worldly voice, but lighter, wistfully revisiting that topic of running. Scott-Heron’s vocals are less central here – instead we concentrate on the repeated hook and whirling pads – but they are still the focus. It’s another textbook example of a well-done remix, with Jamie xx making his presence known without obliterating his source material.

The success of this album, in a critical sense, really depends on what you interpret the purpose to be. Cynically, if you look at the record as an attempt by Jamie xx to establish himself as an independent producer/artist outside of The xx, you could paint a picture in which he has stolen Gil Scott-Heron’s words, co-opting them for another purpose by removing the blemishes and the politics and leaving a soundbite-friendly shell. I have trouble ascribing such sinister ulterior motives to We’re New Here.

Instead, I think that we need to accept that these types of projects inevitably result in the watering down of content. Yes, this remix album lacks the gut-punch power of the original release. Hell, if this were the optimal presentation for Gil Scott-Heron’s voice, he probably would have found it himself years ago. Instead, We’re New Here must be viewed as the opportunity for a second life for Scott-Heron’s poetry and presentation, a resurrection of both his sonic “voice” and his editorial “Voice.” By giving I’m New Here a welcome and well-produced dub-influenced electro treatment, Jamie xx has brought Gil Scott-Heron to a boatload of ears that may have otherwise never given him the chance of a listen.

There are some missteps on this album, to be sure. Or, at the very least, songs where the original far outshines the new, revamped version. “NY Is Killing Me” is a prime example, as Jamie replaces the handclap-based beat of the original with a swirling dubstep that obscures Scott-Heron’s voice beyond recognition, reducing him to the hook rather than the centerpiece. Most songs, however, hit their mark. The interludes remain fairly true to form – perhaps a little closer to vignettes than interludes on the second time around – and the general spirit of the work is maintained. Part of what made I’m New Here so brilliant was the feeling it evoked; it wasn’t Gil Scott-Heron struggling alone on the street anymore, because we were there with him. On this album, we’re no longer on the streets, we’re in studios and sitting in front of computers with headphones on. That’s kind of the point. This is digestible Gil, Gil you can take with you on a walk around the park.

To me, We’re New Here is the embodiment of Scott-Heron’s words on “Jazz Interlude,” We’re New Here’s second to last track. Spun over a photocopy of the drumbeat of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” the track outlines Scott-Heron’s feelings on the definition of Jazz. “Jazz music was dance music that came out of the brothels and cat houses of New Orleans. So when the question, ‘Is That Jazz?’ came up, I started to describe it in terms of what I knew it to be – dance music, from it’s earliest beginnings to where it is now.” While Scott-Heron has always been a master of rhythm, he has sometimes lacked melody. Judging by his definition, though, Jamie xx has Scott-Heron, for the first time in over a decade, truly playing Jazz.