Cash-in or creative rebirth: why are MGMT and Kelela remixing their albums?

The average remix is just a marketing tool – a way to get money for old rope. But in the right hands and with the best intentions, it can be sublime

Kelela’s debut album proper, 2017’s Take Me Apart, chronicled heartbreak, healing and new love, and scored highly in end-of-year lists in everywhere from Pitchfork and the Guardian to Cosmopolitan. Translating those accolades into record sales, however, was to prove tricky: the album failed to break either the US Billboard Top 100 or UK’s Top 50 charts.

A year on, however, she has given the album a second lease of life as Take Me a_Part, the Remixes. And she is not the only one giving their latest release a late-campaign buff-up: playful synthpop duo MGMT have gifted February’s underwhelming fourth album Little Dark Age a thorough overhaul from leftfield electronicist Matthew Dear, while Alt-J just dropped Reduxer, a “rap-heavy do-over” of their recent Relaxer LP which is, frankly, better than it has any right to be.

The remix album has a long history, much of it woeful: the sound of fading stars opportunistically belly-flopping beside bandwagons (Sly Stone desperately dressing his faultless funk classics up in gaudy disco gear on 1979 turkey Ten Years Too Soon), or rockers glumly retooling their hits for dancefloors where they don’t belong (dance great Shep Pettibone dragging Level 42’s Lessons in Love out into an endless, priapic rut on 1987’s The Family Edition). And the less said about the millennium-era fad for “mashups” the better.

But then there are those remix albums that redeem this cynical, old-rope-selling concept, reimagining old songs in new contexts, translating artists for different audiences, and uncovering infinite new creative possibilities within the familiar. Consider Brit-soul bohemians Imagination’s icy funk getting remixed by godlike DJ Larry Levan for their overlooked 1983 masterpiece Nightdubbing; Soft Cell’s accurately titled Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing, which enlivened their perfect perv-pop with some of the first MDMA to enter the UK; A Tribe Called Quest rewiring their debut with dancehall skank and Carly Simon’s midlife ennui on 1992’s Revised Quest For The Seasoned Traveller; or Björk stripping back her intense 2015 breakup album Vulnicura on Vulnicura Strings.

Acid redux: Alt-J.
Acid redux: Alt-J. Photograph: Mads Perch

Take Me a_Part, the Remixes belongs in this last bracket, thanks not least to the wildly eclectic bunch Kelela has enlisted to take the source material in myriad unexpected directions. DC go-go pioneers Rare Essence stir the strung-out ache of Take Me Apart into bustling street-funk; Brooklyn experimentalist Serpentwithfeet runs wild with Kelela’s avant instincts; and south London dancehall wunderkind Gaika twists Frontline into radical new shapes. Like its cover – multiple Kelelas sporting multiple different hairstyles – it seems less about shifting units and more about shifting perceptions.

Contributor

Stevie Chick

The GuardianTramp

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