Into the Mix

Rock as dance music. Dance music as rock.

Taking a four-minute song out to almost seven isn't inherently a bad idea, but in the case of Garbage it's a disaster. When you stretch the same soundset across a longer track you break the individual noises out of their context; sounds start to stand alone. Which can be crucial: The whole concept of the drum break--on which hip-hop looping is founded--comes from exactly this sort of remixing procedure, made possible back in the day by the introduction of longer-playing 12-inch singles. But for Garbage, the very thing that makes their good songs great--from "Vow" onward--is the swirling density, at once mercurial and mechanical, with its own gravity and its own propulsion. These songs have already been assembled by a beat-happy, egghead knob-twiddler.

So what can Boom Boom Satellites do but fail? Version two-point-stupid of "Push It" first mutes the Hurby Luv Bug beat and then attenuates the song's density until we're left with dry clicking in lieu of rhythm and a discrete series of boops and bleeps, plinky piano, and transient guitar noises. They're after something like the floaty, liquid morphine ambience of Apollo 440's remix of "Mysterious Ways," but instead it's pure Valium. And Valium isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Brandy's second single, "Sittin' on Top of the World," is--like "Push It"--great on the album. But because her crew isn't as corrupted by theoretical practice, they just let it be. "Sittin'" already sounds exactly like a remix of the R&B variety: rich with digitized scratches and vocal pasting over nothing but a breakbeat.

The Diva Carey would have tried to have it both ways, leaving the song all melody and vocal autoeroticism on the record--four out of five soccer moms prefer it!--and then spending her remix budget renting a ghetto pass from Ol' Dirty Bastard (sorry, Big Baby Jesus). Brandy cuts to the edit without delay: "Sittin'" opens with an awesomely irrelevant rap by Mase (working the shit out of the last few minutes before he grows unbearable). His words are as flat as ever--kid 'n' playa Esperanto--but his lyrical negotiation with the beat is just utterly charming, like a grade-schooler who learned to jump a mean double dutch with two spastic pals.

Meanwhile, Brandy loves hooks and they love her; there's a certain noblesse in her ability to carry the tune but let others carry the weight, or at least some of it. This is what most distinguishes her from Aunt Whitney, who's such a grand dame that she can't help but own the entirety of a song. (Imagine Mase going for his on one of Whitney's tracks!) Ms. Houston's vocal gift is so extreme it crushes songs until genre disappears: In 20 years her discs will sit down the bin from Tony Bennett, strictly File Under Vocals. But coming of age in the R&B renaissance, Brandy knows how to manage the sultry, cozy address of R&B while keeping the groove on. Brandy won't always love you, but she's down for you right now, inviting you in to help her ride the stripped-down thwack track home. And it's not even a love song.

In their different ways, both "Push It" and "Sittin'" offer examples of how remix artisanship has been folded into the premix. It's a lesson Tjinder Singh should really learn. Cornershop's current single "Sleep on the Left Side" is, on record, dull as dishwater. A pop song with no pop, it gets by on little but the surplus value of helping one feel all multicultural and shit.

The Les Rhythmes Digitales' "Living by Numbers" remix, with additional production by Jacques LuCont, isn't much longer, nor is it much different. A few BPM faster, more drums, and a claptrack fill out the beat. A mildly goofy alto synth part adds a boppiness to the rhythm, while a low synth brings the melody forward--very Human League. Suddenly the vocals (pretty much the same as the album version) seem focused and engaging; the song stops lying back and jumps up to hit you with the hook.

None of the track's revisions are particularly ambitious, radical, or technologically complex. It doesn't sound any more like a dance-floor workout, but it sure sounds less like wallpaper. In short, after the remix it's a nice, basic pop single. It's a little pleasure. Which is what it should have been in the first place. Why did we ever have to hear the original, which now sounds like a pricey demo?

The current mother of all remixes is William Orbit's "Liquid Mix" of Madonna's "Ray of Light." Orbit is the sonic tactician to Butch Vig's strategist: While they're equally obsessive with their soundsets, Orbit's the genius of specific tones where Vig's wizardry is laying in the layers. This was one of Orbit's downfalls in the original album's production: His manufactory of amazing noises gets compressed and concealed by the time limits of the pop song.

So while Garbage loses by disassembling their density, Orbit can only gain from such decompression. The "Liquid Mix" is 8:08 state-of-the-art minutes with hardly any new sounds added or removed from the album track; it's just rearranged, given more free play. Though this is hardly the first case of an electronicat rearranging a pop dog, it's the one that makes sense of the scheme. In melodies begin responsibilities, and the Grand Dame's vocal line keeps Orbit from falling into a theoryfunk. But also, the sounds are exalted and pure as church music, the same way that eunuch choirs were designed to sound inhumanly beautiful. Orbit's noises are just as constructivist-angelic, and Madonna slides lucently into the mix: supershiny digital gospel.

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