Who is the remix album for? Is it for the fans of the original songs, the fans of those doing the remixing, or is it for the entertainment of the remixers themselves? Listening to Beth Orton's newly released The Other Side of Daybreak, I find myself wondering. Also, shortly after buying the disc, I read a quote from the new Rolling Stones history/coffee table book, where Mick Jagger says he'd like to remix Exile on Main Street, because he never really cared for the album. Would that be for himself then, or for his fans?
Remixing is a funny business. I'm not knocking it; I think it's a legitimate art form, sometimes offering up creations that are new and unique. But, you have to admit, not all of them are necessary. As the music industry keeps mutating into different genres and subgenres, and each of those has to get remixed, my CD collection is becoming cumbersome. Even The Other Side of Daybreak, which features remixed tracks from last year's Daybreaker plus some unreleased and acoustic songs, came out only weeks before Pass in Time, a two-disc compilation of Orton hits and remixes. I love Beth Orton, but I'm not sure I'm fan enough to take on two such discs at one time. And with room in my home for only one more disc, I had to go with The Other Side of Daybreak.
The title track from Daybreaker, a song that already had a Chemical Brothers stamp on it and enough of a dance beat to land it in the film "Blue Crush" and on one of those "ultra chilled" collections, appears twice on The Other Side of Daybreak. Once it's remixed by Four Tet, and once by Roots Manuva. It hardly needed improving, and it's hard to say the remixes are improvements. Roots Manuva gives the song a hip-hop flavor, with Mr. Manuva himself contributing some vocals. It results in the same incongruous sound found in Orton's contribution to Princess Superstar's last CD. I've always liked hearing break beats mixed into Orton's folk tendencies, but rapping's bravado clashes with her earthy voice.
Four Tet also remixes "Carmela." In its original form, the song has a folk-rock twang, and Orton's voice echoes Joan Baez's. Four Tet turns it into a percussion-driven track, with a tribal beat and what sounds like hand claps dominating the stripped-down guitar and vocals. The keyboard is also brought to the forefront. On the original, Ben Watt is listed as playing piano, but it's subtle and you have to listen closely to hear it. The keyboard on the new version is buoyant and playful, almost like a toy piano, skipping along with Orton's trilling voice and the insistent beat.
The best remix is International Peoples Gang's version of "Thinking About Tomorrow." As it was written, it's a perfectly lovely song; the kind of song that sends people to seek out Orton's greatest hits and remixes. IPG's version is a stew of layered beats and odd sound effects. The vocals are mostly skipped. In the beginning a snatch of singing soars to the surface then disappears, as if the speaker with that track were bobbing in and out of the water. Periodically an entire verse makes its way to the front, but mostly partial syllables float in and out, adding to the swirl of sound.
Among the unreleased tracks are acoustic recordings of "Concrete Sky," a catchy single from Daybreaker, and "Ooh Child," a well-known soul song from the '70s by the Five Stairsteps that takes on a whole new personality with Orton's fragile vocal. There are three new tracks, or songs that never made it onto last year's release. On these, Orton's voice is the force that carries the music. Even when Kieren Hebden, AKA Four Tet, produces, as is the case on "Beautiful World." Orton can convey a world of emotion in a single track, moving from a guttural reproach to a whispery longing. And it's easy to fall into the fold. But on this disc, which bustles with other artists' flashes and flourishes, the different personalities sometimes vie for attention.
Remixes like this prompt a debate with myself that never would have surfaced a decade ago. (Even when Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" was remixed about 10 years ago, I was glad for the improvement.) I have to overcome a little guilt for liking a new version of an old favorite. Am I being disloyal? Yet, I look forward to hearing what happens to the music in someone else's hands. Clearly Orton also enjoys it. Her career has seen several DJ collaborations, and she has a knack for pairing up with the hottest names of the moment. The end results are often compelling, and add to the occasions when I'll listen to Orton's music ... or to the other musician's. I guess we all benefit from these extra trips to the studio.