erasing clouds

Motown Remixed

review by dave heaton

A recent Christian Science Monitor headline proclaims, "Radio stations nudge oldies format off the air." Young people today don't want to hear the music of the past, the article tells us; they don't want to hear the Beatles, don't want to hear Elvis, don't want to hear Motown. Regardless of the flaws in the 'good times, great oldies' format – de-contextualizing music of the past for the sake of a vague sense of nostalgia, for example – this current state of affairs is a sad one, if the article's premise is correct. The music created on the Motown label during the 1960s represents some of the finest songwriting and musicianship in American pop music – it's music that transcends time and sounds as fresh now as it ever did. It's a shame if young music fans consider it 'old fogey music' – a perspective that certainly was accelerated by The Big Chill soundtrack and other attempts to frame it solely within the context of Baby Boomer Music.

Motown Remixed is an attempt to re-introduce the music to a new generation, to make Motown hip again. Take 14 classic Motown songs (and, indeed, these songs are classics, from artists like Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and the Temptations), and hand them over to hot young producers and DJs so they can put their own, "modern" spin on the songs. "What would happen with a fresh approach?" is how the liner notes explains it. The raw truth, though, is that Motown doesn't need this sort of help; these songs are fresh enough.

There's nothing wrong with this project in theory; remixing could put these songs in a different light. The problem is the results. For the most part there's nothing added to any of these songs that does anything but damage. There are some moments that offer an innocuous kind of pleasure – near the album's end, King Britt funks up Edwin Starr's "War" without diluting the song's potency, and DJ Spinna moves Eddie Kendricks' "Keep on' Truckin'" along with doing too much damage. That's what the best of these songs do, they avoid serious damage…which is to say, the other tracks feel more like destruction than creation.

The main approach on Motown Remixed is to slow the songs down and give them mood lighting, to turn them into "chill-out" music, in the process draining them of the raw emotion that is the songs' lifeblood. Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On" becomes sexless; Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" crawls along without any of the joy of the original; The Temptations' heart-wrenching "Just My Imagination" becomes superfluous elevator music. Worst of all, the Supremes' "My World Is Empty Without You" is slowed down to a nearly static pace by Tranzition. The song now reflects the sung-about emptiness all too literally; it sounds entirely blank.

Motown Remixed feels less like creation than destruction. It's as if the remixers listened to the original songs with one ear closed, completely missing that there were songs about love, about hurt, about people and what they go through. The remixers – Saleem Remi, Mocean Worker, Groove Boutique, DJ Smash, Easy Mo Bee, and the rest of them - have taken the Motown songs and given them a new texture: utter blandness. Imagine that your first exposure to Gladys Knight and the Pips, to the Jackson 5, to Stevie Wonder was through these versions – the thought horrifies. Then again, maybe this remix project will be what it takes to introduce young people to Motown: any older person who hears it might be compelled to buy all of the original Motown recordings for every young music fan they know, as an antidote to this poison.


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