Panthalassa: The Remixes
When the Star Wars trilogy was updated for re-release over the past few years, George Lucas's crew at Industrial Light & Magic tooled around with added special effects to modernize those sci-fi classics. Fans who were up for a few new surprises were happy to scour through the original takes for the computer-generated additions of new landscapes and creatures. But the purists scoffed. These reinterpretations of the three films were sacrilegious, they cried; the overanimated supplements only managed to cheapen the Star Wars mystique.
For fans of a certain jazz legend, this past year's Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 1969-1974, was dismissed in similar fashion. Stretched across four lengthy tracks, ten of Davis's tunes were reconstructed by remixer extraordinaire Bill Laswell to create an abridged and modernized collection of the trumpeter's more eccentric moments. Sometimes Laswell altered phrases with effects or added drumbeats. Usually he just played with the original mixes and shortened song segments, presumably to appeal to the reduced attention spans of a younger audience. But in the end it seemed that Laswell didn't quite push the limits far enough to make the cuts as exciting as the originals. Of course the purists simply said, "Eh, don't touch."
On the latest sonic experiment with Davis's work, Panthalassa: The Remixes, boundaries are expanded further as a collection of DJs and dance floor-oriented remix artists push and pull the original tracks to mold some new and very animated creatures out of Davis's work. King Britt & Philip Charles kick off the album with a slow-building, ten-minute version of "Shhh" that creeps from a subtle ambient whisper to a driving drum and bass groove. DJ Cam's take on "In a Silent Way" smacks a hip-hop drumbeat on the underside of a subdued track. And Laswell's single remix offering milks the inherently tribal rhythms of "On the Corner." But the two versions of "Rated X" that grace the recording succeed the best. Jamie Myerson's mix tosses elements of jungle into the porno jiggles of Davis's tune; Doc Scott's take spends two minutes establishing the original's wah-wah infected groove before launching the song into an atmospheric drum and bass soundtrack, perfect for a late-night highway drive.
These remixers' adventurous attempts to tweak Davis's music are a ballsy risk but they work. Panthalassa: The Remixes couldn't possibly be used as a guesswork gauge to find the paths Davis might be trodding today if he were still alive, but it sounds good just the same. The purists, however, will continue to recoil.
-- Mark Watt
The Robert Cray Band
Take Your Shoes Off
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Robert Cray can flat out sing. Take Your Shoes Off, the most recent offering from the Robert Cray Band, transports Cray's velvety, plaintive voice to Memphis where he and the rest of the band serve up some slow-burning soul. The disc veers away from the fiery blues riffs that characterize the band's earlier work, opting instead to commune with the legacy of the Stax crew, Al Green, and countless other Memphis soul legends. The result is a beautiful new sound.
Just as they have done with the blues on past albums, the band members take a rich musical tradition and make it uniquely their own. The songs range from sweet domesticity ("There's Nothing Wrong") to macho posturing ("24-7 Man"), moving easily within the Memphis tradition. Through it all Cray's voice is rich, confident, and effortless while his guitar wends through every tune, delivering lovely, understated fills. "What About Me" has an irresistible, rolling guitar hook that propels Cray's querulous, demanding vocals. Cray also reminds us that Memphis isn't just about soul; after all, B.B. King cut his first licks on Beale Street. "Tollin' Bells," a Willie Dixon tune, lets it be known that Cray can still wail the blues on his guitar with the best of them.
The downside to this record is one common to Cray's work: It's too smooth at times. Steve Jordan's production work leaves little to chance and the resulting thick veneer of professionalism costs the music some spontaneity, as on the disc's opening track, "Love Gone to Waste." Part of the problem stems from Cray's style. He is so in command of his voice and guitar that, even when playing live, he sounds controlled and completely at ease. While this approach does not lend itself to rawness, his tunes sometimes do. The music would benefit from occasionally sounding as though something could go wrong. This tendency toward overproduction, however, is but a small quibble with an otherwise magnificent album. Take Your Shoes Off is the Robert Cray Band's best album in a long time, perhaps ever. Twenty-five years on from their first gig, they can still surprise and delight.
-- David N. Cassuto