Fantasma Remixes and Cornelius

various artists
FM: Fantasma Remixes

CM: Cornelius Remixes

There are three reasons to remix. First, like Spice wannabes All Saints, your idea well has run dry but your record company will still write more checks. Second, like New Order, you have to figure out a way to make one song fill out a 12-inch single. Or third, like Stereolab or Yo La Tengo, you actually believe that there are two ways to tell a story, that any song worth its chorus is has sturdy enough foundations to be leveled and rebuilt.

We're supposed to believe that Cornelius fits in this third group. The Japanese pop star also known as Keigo Oyamada is a remixing recidivist with several splice-and-dice outings already behind him. On FM: Fantasma Remixes, he lets a host of hip auteurs--Beasties keys-man Money Mark, lite-poppers the High Llamas, Blur's Damon Albarn, et al.--rework eight songs from his 1997 record Fantasma. On CM: Cornelius Remixes, he repays the favor, breaking down songs originally recorded by the artists who remixed his work for the first disc.

The original Fantasma was a thrilling record, a collage of cartoon samples, My Bloody Valentine noise swells, Cheap Trick riffs, and jungle beats--all pasted together with billion-track studio mastery. Starting with Beach Boys harmonies and ending at a natural fusion of guitar drive and digital drum kick, Cornelius encapsulated 30 years of rock history and pulled off the almost impossible trick of sounding reverent where other supposed influence freaks sound imitative. In its plain existence, Fantasma is already a kind of remix. And the tale it retold was the hit story of summertime musical escapism.

But what happens when you try to remix a remix? The answer, as evidenced by FM, can at times be just as annoying as that postmodern brainteaser itself. Whereas Cornelius's originals made studio gimmickry secondary to actual songwriting, his remixers do the opposite, lazily making Fantasma's songs sound like trivial sonic experiments.

Money Mark's "Mic Check" is a serviceable update of Cornelius's showy hip-hop bubble bath, but the High Llamas' take on "The Micro Disneycal World Tour" strips down the song's oompah beat and acoustic guitar splash and slathers what remains with suffocating schmaltz. Blur's Damon Albarn is savvy enough to realize that the Brit-pop cognoscenti would fillet him for ripping off Radiohead's digital voice on his own records, so he blithely uses it here--completely out of techno-logical context--alongside a deep-throated Barry White-alike voice. Only Coldcut's aggressive "Typewrite Lesson," a drum 'n' bass fragmentation of a bonus track from the Japanese issue of Fantasma, captures the joy of sound and the seduction of studio perfection--and then, only after a minute and a half of atmospheric nonsense. Together, the songs are enough to make any listener forget what was so good about Fantasma in the first place.

CM is only slightly better than FM. Cornelius tears apart several songs that were only mediocre to begin with. His reworking of U.N.K.L.E.'s "Ape Shall Never Kill Ape" is more sonically complex than the original, and the Pastel's wispy "Windy Hill" gets tripped out with tiny tech beats. Still, if you're just sprinkling powdered sugar on rock candy, why bother?

Artists who mine pop's past for forgotten nuggets already run the risk of wallowing in nostalgia. Yet on a rare outing, someone like Cornelius or Beck can manipulate both content and context to create new expressions: Tired bar-chord clichés suddenly explode; banal harmonies resonate anew. The trick, then, is knowing when to stop and when to ditch all the gadgets and wipe the smirk off your face. Beck accomplished much by following the hodgepodge Odelay with tightly focused songs on last year's Mutations. In the wake of Fantasma, Cornelius and his remixers have chosen to cozy up with the warm, soft blanket of familiar forms. As a consequence, both FM and CM are like a long nap.

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