Sunday, December 31, 2006

A New England (Extended Version) (1984) – Kirsty MacColl (Billy Bragg)

In the ‘80s, the best remixes and extended versions transcended the original mixes not merely by prolonging their duration, but by stripping them down to their compositional rudiments, illuminating something that was previously buried beneath the mix, introducing adscititious elements that furthered the song’s spirit, recasting the components in an arrangement that emerged metamorphosed to reward the listener with a new musical perspective. New Order’s Extended Version of “The Perfect Kiss,” Walter Turbitt’s Mystery Mix of Big Country’s “The Teacher,” and Julian Mendelssohn’s The Full Horror mix of Pet Shop Boys’ “Suburbia” are but a few which exemplify this ideal. Arguably at the top of the list are Shep Pettibone’s Extended Dance Remix of New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” and Steve Lillywhite’s Extended Version of his late former wife Kirsty MacColl’s “A New England.” So richly does Lillywhite’s re-imagining reverberate in the sensibilities of astute reconfiguration, that it seems apropos to consider the evolution of the song from Billy Bragg composition to MacColl cover to Lillywhite remix in order to understand the value added.

Bragg’s words betray a crisis at the cusp of adulthood that finds him at once defensive about his stagnancy and pitiable in his disappointments. To cope with his loneliness, he tries to debase the girl least likely to love him by recasting her as the university harlot he graciously dismisses. He ambivalently mulls over the letters he occasionally receives from her, like paltry consolation prizes. Still, he wonders why, amidst his desperation to move forward, what little he desires continues to elude him: he’s not seeking sweeping social or political change, he just wants to find someone to take his mind off of her.

Whereas Bragg underscores his desolation with the accompaniment of a lone hollowbody electric guitar, MacColl proclaims her bitterness amid a full-fledged kinetic arrangement. Bragg penned additional lyrics specifically for MacColl, as caustic as they are clever. MacColl becomes Bragg’s counterpart—the girl who haunts him, yet who is unable to rid herself of the vestiges of their erstwhile relationship. One is free to choose the protagonist with whom to empathize in this bifurcated saga.

In turn, Lillywhite’s reworking salvages Bragg’s despair and MacColl’s resentment, restoring them to triumphant effect. The programmed drum patterns pound more resolutely, as if in defiance of the radio-friendly limits imposed by a 7” slab of vinyl. Generously lavished reverb carries the dilatant momentum of regal guitars and MacColl’s canorous multi-part vocals across the sonic expanse. The frenetic digital-delayed guitar riff camouflaged in the single mix now flutters briskly in the spotlight over stepping stones of gritty bass flouncing like henchmen with an agenda, eventually yielding to a ringing tapestry of meticulously-picked Marresque Rickenbacker jangle. Previously unused and latent vocal harmonies are given new life apart from the main vocal melody, pleasantly revealing untapped complexions. The expanded instrumental break evokes a springtime Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, complete with joyous puffs of panpipe. For all its inherent dissatisfaction and drama, the song becomes an affair more celebratory than sour.

Although lasting nearly 8 minutes, rather than overextending itself, Lillywhite’s treatment leaves the impression that the single version was in a hurry, anxious to find direction in a course of uncertainty. Given time to explore, “A New England” discovers in its protracted form where it means to go.

  • Listen to "A New England" (Extended Version) and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Friday, December 22, 2006

    Perfect Christmas (2000) – S Club 7

    The classic picturesque Winter Wonderland—one-horse sleigh, bells jingling, special someone, freshly-roasted chestnuts, ice-skating rink straight out of Serendipity—finds a modern-day soundtrack. Although an easy target of criticism, given that S Club 7 was sired by Spice Girls/American Idol magnate Simon Fuller, “Perfect Christmas” proves to be holiday pop at its peak: sweet enough to indulge in pleasurably, yet temperate enough with the sappy sentiment that grimaces do not abound. Radio-friendly R&B-lite vocals and a classic Motown-esque melody mosey into a rising and falling chorus that leaps to its spires, then retreats a few steps, gradually climbing in progressively chromatic fashion a spiral staircase of beat-locked-bass and Shasta-sheen strings. The S Clubbers saunter sonorously along the snow-paved sidewalks of tealight-illuminated Candy Cane Lane, all for the sake of punctuating their wish list with an asterisk: *Eliminate the “unrequited” and “long-distance” in the relationship. This winter brew concocted by songwriters Cathy Dennis and Simon Ellis goes down all smooth and buttery, like the creamiest of rum eggnogs, tapping into the alchemic wonder of the holiday season to spark visions of perennial munificence that melt away with the conclusion of winter break.

  • Not available from iTunes Music Store.