Friday, February 07, 2020

I’m confused here

I’m New Here is the final studio album by the late, great Gil Scott-Heron, released in 2010. We’re New Here is a remix of the album by the xx’s Jamie xx, released in 2011. Nothing New is a posthumous album of songs recorded during the I’m New Here sessions, released in 2014 on Record Store Day on vinyl only. We’re New Again is a ‘Reimagaining’ of I’m New Here by Makaya McCraven, released in February 2020.

Gil Scott-Heron died in 2011, so what’s going on?  It seems to me to be a case of the Johnny Cash Cow, as I’ve mentioned previously. Seven Johnny Cash albums plus a box set have so far been released from the Rick Rubin-produced 'American sessions' with, according to Cash's son in 2014, 'four or five albums in the works'. Seems a bit excessive to me.

With I'm New Here there seems to be four separate albums associated with it (hold on, actually five altogether with the I'm New Here (10th Anniversary Expanded Edition) just released). I loved the original album, though it felt quite thin on the ground, only 28 minutes long including half a dozen spoken interludes, produced by XL Recordings owner Richard Russell. Like Rubin's Cash sessions, there are cover versions and a sparse sound. Sometimes just a beat over Gil's haggard spoken voice. In fact, as Uncut magazine's review (awarded two stars, whereas in most other publications it got four or five) at the time suggested, the "finished article assembled, Bowfinger-style, without [Scott-Heron's] knowledge". Indeed, I don't think Scott-Heron was entirely happy with the result, calling it "Richard's [Russell] CD". Russell added all the music to the vocal tracks, including Gil's chattering that went on between takes.

We're New Here has Jamie xx use his skills as a dj to recontextualise the album in the style of his debut album with the band The xx, using snatches of Gil's voice with dubstep and garage styles. Nothing New contains more songs recorded at the original sessions, this time extremely sparse versions of his own songs, with just voice and piano. Now we have We're New Again, the album reimagined again a decade later, this time by Chicago producer and drummer Makaya McCraven who takes it back to Gil-Scott's mileu of free jazz and blues. The just-released 10th year anniversary version of I'm Not Here contains the original album as well as a bonus disc of even more songs recorded at the original sessions – with even more extended spoken interludes (this bonus disc actually came out first in 2010 as a limited edition with the original album).

You have to hand it to Richard Russell and Jamie xx, though, middle class white boys from south London, obviously huge fans of Gil Scott-Heron, who helped bring him to a new generation of listeners; it had been sixteen years since he had released an album before I'm New Here. It's just they had in mind a sound they wanted to hear and that was their sound, not Gil's.

I remember listening to Panthalassa: The Music Of Miles Davis, 1969-1974 when it first came out in 1998. Bill Laswell remixes In A Silent Way and On the Corner, Miles' electric jazz and funk period to create a surprisingly cohesive, unified, ambient soundscape (though when the remix got remixed a few years later, the results were awful). This was nothing new in Miles' music – producer Teo Macero edited and spliced together elements from hours of Davis' improvised sessions in the studio to create the masterpieces In a Silent Way, Jack Johnson and Bitches Brew.

Gil's original version of New York is Killing Me, from I'm New Here, contains a hypnotic handclapping riff, which reminds me of a song on Leonard Cohen's posthumous studio album released last year, Thanks for the Dance (an album two minutes longer than I'm New Here), called Night in Santiago. The album was taken from vocal tracks recorded at the sessions for Cohen's previous album, 2016's You Want it Darker. The producer, Cohen's son Adam, added music to the bare vocals, employing various singers and musicians, including Beck on Jew's harp and Daniel Lanois on piano. I would love to hear Makaya McCraven's take on the album, New Thanks for the Dance?

Previously on Barnflakes
Top 30 of the year
The top 100 albums
where new here
Rubinise me
Top 10 record producers 
More Ex-Ex Elliott
Elliott School of Rock

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