Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx, "We're New Here"

Saturday, 05 March 2011 21:00 Stephen Bush Reviews - Albums and Singles
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cover imageTwo musicians are jointly credited for this album: Jamie Smith, the sound sculptor behind 2009's buzz band du jour, the xx, and Gil Scott-Heron, the legendary spoken word poet and musician who should require no introduction. This project, a full-length collection of remixes that draws primarily from Scott-Heron's first recording in eons, 2010's triumphant I'm New Here, has been touted as a collaborative effort. A cursory listen, however, makes one thing immediately clear—this is Jamie's show.

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I had doubts as to whether We're New Here could stand on its own, given Jamie's limited resume. He contributed a great deal to the xx's debut two years ago—perfect, minimal pop that seemed fully formed from the start, nuanced and emotionally vulnerable. My question, however, was whether the xx were a one-trick pony, in possession of a sound so singular that it lacked a means of expansion. We're New Here is an emphatic rebuttal, showing Jamie in full command of a range of sounds—and while that bodes well for the xx and their longevity, this album demands to be heard in the meantime.

Throughout We're New Here, Jamie weaves Scott-Heron's weathered vocals from I'm New Here into his low-key, introspective world of UK dub, garage, dance and electronic music. Scott-Heron is gleefully chopped up, looped, rearranged and scattered around in order to supplement Jamie's soundscapes—vocals are placed carefully to suit the music, never the inverse. Jamie doesn't limit his samples to source material on I'm New Here, either—he digs deep, going back to Scott-Heron's classic 1970s work as well as samples of Baby Washington and Gloria Gaynor's enduring "Casanova Brown," among others.

I'm New Here was a hazy, succinct suite of interconnected songs and sketches—some serving as focal points, others as brief transitional pieces reliant on context. It was disjointed and rough, a harrowing listen, its gritty sounds reflecting the words of a broken man. Jamie's cut-and-paste job on We're New Here is a smart recontextualization of its source material: if I'm New Here was a jigsaw of sorts, this album strips away the dark vibes and reassembles the pieces into a more youthful, celebratory musical palette.

It is commendable that We're New Here plays not as its own important work of art, but as a humble love letter to Scott-Heron's legacy and influence. The bulk of Scott-Heron's recorded work is essential listening, and this album comes across as a respectful tribute to a legend, not a quick cash-in or an attempt to raise Jamie's profile in between albums from the xx. (Note the top billing given to Scott-Heron on—let's be honest—someone else's album.) Fortunately, aside from paying its respects, We're New Here is an impressive musical statement in its own right, a presentation of Jamie's heretofore-unseen breadth as a musician and producer.

We're New Here is a joy to listen to—a playful, diverse album with character (and bass) to spare. By combining Gil Scott-Heron's ageless vocals with his own late-night dreamscapes rooted in UK garage and dub, Jamie Smith has crafted a strong, singular collection of music that succeeds as a nod to Scott-Heron's genius—and, perhaps more importantly, a display of Jamie's budding talent.

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Last Updated on Monday, 11 April 2011 13:39