Sharps & Flats

For some reason, the Underworld let remixers with a lot less talent rework the U.K. outfit's songs.

Published December 7, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Time was when remixes served mainly to turn vocal-driven pop songs into dance music or to create dubbed-out psychedelic takes on reggae. With the electronic music explosion of the late '80s and early '90s, though, the remix has become an art form in its own right, one that's proliferated promiscuously and mutated so much that it's often hard to see where remixing ends and creating brand-new compositions begins. Listening to the new, untitled three-CD singles box set from U.K. electronic trio Underworld, it's sometimes difficult to know whether one is hearing an Underworld collection or simply an electronic compilation with Underworld as the common theme.

A middling '80s duo turned star '90s techno trio, Underworld is perhaps best known for the "Trainspotting" soundtrack hit "Born
Slippy." On three previous albums, the band combined icy, distorted vocals and chopped-up guitar with big-beat rhythms to create music as poundingly propulsive as Prodigy but far more emotionally nuanced. But the cool melancholy that made them unique is utterly lost on tracks like Fatboy Slim's remix of
"King of Snake." That song, for example, contains more of Norman Cook's bombastic bravado than Underworld's plaintive new-new-wave, so who's the song's author? Does it matter?

I'd answer yes, if only to figure out who'd want to own five versions of "King of Snake," five of "Jumbo," four of "Push Upstairs" and three of "Bruce Lee." The most worthwhile remixes highlight something obscured in the original or improvise, jazz-like, on a motif. They're dance music's version of the cover-song tribute, combining some aspect of the original's soul with the interpreter's style. On albums like "Sacrilege" (1997), a collection of Can remixes, the best individual tracks brought out the elements of that seminal band's sound that had most influenced them, building a kind of sonic bridge between machine music past and present. Similarly, the artists who remixed Bjvrk on "Telegram" (1996) were paying homage to her by creating new patterns to complement her gorgeous voice and surreally poignant themes.

Too often on the Underworld singles box set, though, the guest mixers either render the originals listless and generic or they use them as excuses to record entirely new songs. The discs are interesting because they demonstrate what different artists can do with the same raw material, and they contradict anyone who still thinks that electronic music is a naked-emperor con. But the form itself is frustrating, because when the producers depart too far from the original they betray the band, but if they're too faithful then the discs become monotonous.

On "Beaucoup Fish," the recent Underworld album where these songs originated, "Jumbo" has a chiming, incandescent sound, but it's also upbeat, almost anthemic. The single's first and best mix of the song makes it a bit more ethereal and aquatic. Rob Rives and Francois K. blunt the beats a bit so that the whole thing is more lulling and gentle before breaking it down into a driving house track. But the version that follows it, Jedis' "Electro Dub Mix," forgoes so much of the original that the song becomes simply a banal example of the tired wannabe-Afrika Bambaataa '80s revival that's swept through dance music in the last few years.

Still, there are a few moments in the collection that remind one of the power of a remix to unleash all kinds of crazy energy absent in the original. The "Beaucoup Fish" version of "Bruce Lee" was a skittering industrial-breakbeat track that hinted at Meat Beat Manifesto-style low-end assaults. French duo the Micronauts amp up the disturbing, entropic elements of the original, stripping the song down to a haunting metronome, turning the beats into plasma that melts and implodes beneath the dispassionate vocals.

Unfortunately, though, except for the Micronauts, Underworld chose producers far less talented than themselves to have a go at their songs. Even some of the really good tracks in the set -- like Salt Lake City Orchestra's take on "Cups" -- aren't as good as the album versions, while those that do distinguish themselves from their sources often forgo everything that make the originals worth remixing in the first place.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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