Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Remix Collection)
By Skip Perry | 25 November 2009
It doesn’t take a complete listen of brutally bad albums like Daft Club (2003) or Silent Alarm Remixed (2005) to figure out that expectations should be low for a remixed version of the latest Phoenix record. This year’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix has 36 snappy, well-formed, and eminently danceable minutes of electronic guitar pop, every minute and sound distinctly and, most importantly, cohesively Phoenix. No way, then, that a fourteen-artist, fifteen-track, 68-minute Frankenstein’s monster of a compilation of alternate versions can compare, right? Too many cooks in the kitchen, the cooks are less talented, the very triumph of conciseness and sleekness in the band’s pop reversed and bloated, and so on. Let’s take a hard-boiled look.
“Listzomania.” I was almost expecting not to hear one song from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Remix Collection) of equal quality to the original, but that fear was dispelled about thirty seconds into the first track. As the Alex Metric remix thumps in forebodingly then loosens, an already fun song is made more so with snippets of trance cheese, electroclash bass lines, and skeletal vocal glitches. Later, 25 Hours a Day scores with a rhythmic piano line before their rework flat-lines into a sloppy throb.
“1901.” Lead single status aside, this isn’t a particularly traditional composition: each element of the original seems to blend seamlessly into the next, but the song lacks an appreciable melody; this works in context but doesn’t give the remixing artists much to go off. Passion Pit plays it straight with some synth replacements of Phoenix’s guitars before admitting defeat and writing a completely new bridge; L’Aiglon admits defeat from the start by sticking to the original in both construction and time measure, offering the only differences apart from bizarre accordion asides in thick guitar distortion and increased vocal clarity. Both artists would have been better off doing the exact opposite of what they attempt here.
“Fences.” 25 Hours a Day tries and fails to out-pop and out-dance Phoenix, Friendly Fires writes a completely new neo-house piano track, the Soft Pack does a nice Velvet Underground impression, and Chairlift goes all sparkly lounge (watch out for a Richard Cheese cover). Boombass either stupidly squanders or intelligently emphasizes a series of awesome jumping-octave bass passages by placing them between long sections of woozy nothingness. I heard “Fences in a row” about sixty times over the duration of Remix Collection and still have no clue what the hell Mars is talking about—you’ll like at least one of these at the cost of never wanting to hear those words, in a row, ever again.
“Love Like a Sunset.” WAP splits “Love Like a Sunset” into two parts and Remix Collection gives each one a whirl. Turzi takes on the instrumental portion with a serviceable space disco sequence before lumping in a surprising and effective segment of heavy guitar. Animal Collective extends Part 2 into a four-minute mess of cloying moans and Enya backing vocals. How long will we have to be subjected to these echo-y, formless dirges before they become passé? Instead of saving the track, the entrance, with thirty seconds left, of something resembling a backbeat only reminds how boring the previous three minutes were.
“Lasso.” Only one track gets to take advantage of the desperately catchy “Where would you go / Where would you go / With a lasso” chorus and it has re-recorded vocals? Irish trio 2 Door Cinema Club filter this through an obvious Brit-rock prism, but they unfortunately decide to go for self-consciously “epic” Bloc Party and Coldplay exaggeration instead of Oasis punchiness. If U2 had taken their place, the result would have been twice as long, twice as dramatic, and just about as dull.
“Rome.” What sounds at first like the original smashed through some electronic filter designed to produce results hastily described as “cloudy” or “atmospheric” becomes far more intriguing once it becomes clear the backing track is entirely redone and entirely acoustic care of Devendra Banhart with some group called Neighbours. The most precious post-rock flourishes on display could have been toned down a tad, but this is one of the most inventive cuts on the album.
“Countdown”/“Girlfriend”/”Armistice.” Only after a few close listens does the strangeness of WAP‘s final ten minutes emerge: ideas of all breeds seem to pop up indiscriminately before stopping on a dime and occasionally reappearing in equivalent or similar forms, the whole surprisingly coherent for the chaos to which it prescribes. Young Fathers decides to eschew the guitars on its cover of “Girlfriend” before going off on a glitchy tangent that mirrors and magnifies the short breakdown of the original. Yacht sticks to its oddball electro-shtick but makes a crappy decision about how to add interest to the vocal line (the wobbly pitch wavering doesn’t work against such an angular backing track). And “Countdown” gets no remix love at all, despite having one of the fullest guitar lines on an album replete with full guitar lines.
Despite all the hubbub and handwringing above, the most unnerving disappointment with Remix Collection is the increased transparency of Mars’s singing. On WAP, the thick backing slab of distorted guitars hides the details of his vocal lines, obscuring nonsensical Franco-gibberish while allowing his clear tone to dominate the sound like Benny Goodman’s clarinet slicing through the surface noise of a 78 rpm recording. Most of the guests here intuitively recognized this fact and futzed with the vocals accordingly, but even slightly subtle backing tracks don’t stand a chance against the strange inflections and hollow nasality of a (restrained) chorus like “Fennnnces…in a roooooow…”
While I would argue that it’s both inevitable and OK that most tracks from a remix album such as this will suck in comparison to the originals, if we’re lucky we’ll get two, maybe three, inspired reassessments that allow fans to enjoy some of their favorite music in a new light. If we’re really lucky, we’re afforded the opportunity to assemble a reasonably compelling, alternate lineup or two to sidle up against the original track list, but WAP (Remix Collection) just barely makes it over that initial low bar by dishing up some interesting ersatz fare, so, as far as crass cash-ins go, this is a little better than half bad.