The voice oozing from the clothing-store PA system sounded familiar, but the beat sure didn’t. It was LeAnn Rimes all right, swooping Streisand-style into the chorus of “How Do I Live.” But rather than the midtempo-ballad groove that’s been ingrained into our collective brain, the backing music was pure, old-school disco — darting strings, sweeping piano trills, a computerized clap. If the original version evoked a wedding band winding down after a long day, this strange new mutation — complete with model-thin production and a diva who sounds unusually virginal — was the disco inferno meant to goad family and friends onto the floor during the reception.
Dance remixes of Top 40 hits have been spinning away since the Watergate era, but never have they been as abundant (currently there are four dance overhauls of Rimes’ secular hymn), or as surreal, as they are now. Once strictly the domain of urban clubland, remixes now routinely overtake the singles’ original versions on the charts and pop radio. The pivotal moment in this movement occurred three years ago, when New York DJ and mixer Todd Terry took a mopey Everything but the Girl album track, “Missing,” grafted a sleek, sexy thump onto it, and emerged with a magical transformation that pumped new drama and feeling into the song. It wasn’t long before weepy-time ballads like Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart” and Madonna’s “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” — songs hardly intended to shake, shake, shake anyone’s booty — were given the whooshing dance-beat treatment. Lumbering rockers from Metallica to Bush are dipping their boots into the remix waters, and even the Grammy voting body has woken up — this year’s ceremony inaugurates the Best Remixer category.
The results of all this musical cross-pollination can be masterful, comical, or cynical — a truly remixed bag. As with “Missing,” the best remixes don’t merely double a song’s length but recontextualize it. On his three just recently released revampings of Hanson’s “I Will Come to You” (Mercury), Todd Terry strips away the song’s piano-based power-ballad track and replaces it with clomping funkytown house beats. As ridiculous as it may sound on paper, it works. The club throb is less schlocky than the original arrangement, and they lend the song an almost religious fervor. Most importantly, Terry helps Taylor Handson fulfill his destiny — as a teen-in-heat male diva.
If Terry wants to pump up the volume, British DH Roni Size wants to tear the playhouse down. Already revered as a drum-and-bass wizard for New Forms — a padded but often spellbinding double CD — Size is less concerned with communal grooves than with internal ones. It doesn’t matter to him that Sarah McLachlan’s new single “Sweet Surrender” (Arista), has a bump and grind rare to her work. On one of the single’s bonus tracks, Size tosses the song’s beat and chorus, retains snippets of McLachlan’s vocal, and inserts them into a spectral drum-and-bass backdrop. McLachlan sounds less like a Lilith fairy and more like an astronaut cooing forlornly out her spacecraft porthole. Size takes a similar tack on his “Mother’s Mix” of U2’s “Mofo” (Island import), which mutates Pop’s most techno assault into dark, rumbly, and subversively un-danceable performance art. Cutting-and-pasting Bono’s yearning “Mother…am I still your son?” lyric, Size’s version of “Mofo” becomes a disquieting requiem.
Then again, less can sometimes be simply less with remixes. On album, Loreena McKennitt’s “The Mummers’ Dance” (Warner Bros.) rides on atmosphere; with its mix of traditional folk instruments and sonic gauze, it feels like a folk mass for young, romantic Druids. The generic, streamlined drumbeat and sonics of the remix (by British sound manipulators DNA) remove much of the original’s alluring mystery. Alas, the overhaul also places added emphasis on McKennitt’s lyrics, which more than ever appear to be an unintentional homage to Spi¨al Tap’s “Stonehenge.”
Leave it to Sean “Puffy” Combs to use the art of remixes to expand his ever-widening empire. Apparently believing that his flickering all-star gangsta fantasy “It’s All About the Benjamins” (Bad Boy) is an anthem for all ages and tastes, he’s retooled it for several different radio formats. “Rock Remix I” and “Rock Remix II” grant and alt-rock lineup — Dave Grohl’s drums, Rob Zombie’s belch — onto the album cut. The results are cluttered and cartoonish, even if the rockers sound like they’re having a blast. The “Ain’t Armad Mix,” by Grammy-nominated British DJ Armand Van Helden, sets the song to barren, stuttery drum-and-bass. Suddenly the song is cold and stark — which, given its soulless fixation on money and material gain, may be its most honest manifestation yet.