For his 2010 album, Gil Scott-Heron returned after a long hiatus with I’m New Here’s breathtaking new highs. After a long break that found Scott-Heron dealing with personal demons, he sounded just as personal and raw in creating what was probably the year’s finest comeback. The album bristled with genuine songwriting that found Scott-Heron asking, “But I’m new here, will you show me around?” and although he was unfound, he was never lost. Even the interludes that he offered – most under the guise of advice when in reality, they were words of wisdom from a man who has lived a rich life – were poignant additions on an album that many are still fascinated by.
With that, on their 2009 album, The XX delivered what many considered to be one of the finest debuts of that year. In many ways, I’m New Here was a debut in that it finally introduced Scott-Heron’s music to many rookie ears but there’s no denying that he’s a seasoned pro. But on songs like “Islands” and their smooth confidence and magnetic pull, The XX sounded like grizzled veterans too. And in that kind of fantastic fashion, music has a way of surprising even the most appreciative listeners with The XX’s Jamie Smith teaming up with Scott-Heron’s music for We’re New Here.
Headlined as a remix album, Smith takes Scott-Heron’s album and manipulates the sounds and shapes into various new contortions. Album opener “I’m New Here” takes the folksy acoustic guitar version found on Scott-Heron’s album and turns it into a dubstep-inspired romp. Scott-Heron’s voice sounds just as prime as it did last year, except this time around Smith has adorned the versions with added beats, synths and keyboards for a fuller, richer sound. But while it’s tagged as an album by both artists, Smith lends the pieces an invigorating new sound and each is instantly re-invented into something entirely singular.
Smith turns “New York is Killing Me” into a beat-heavy, almost other-worldly sound in combining ethereal samples and beats with Scott-Heron’s battered voice. While Scott-Heron’s original version collected hand-claps with a bluesy stomp that found him singing about moving slow in another location, “NY is Killing Me” is a fast-paced collaboration that is disguised as a dancefloor romp; it’s essentially now ready for any DJ’s hands to take hold of. Smith’s arrangements sound timely and gifted because they enable the original song to find a way through while still maintaining that as a remix, it should sound different. And instead of taking the safe road and simply modifying the tempo or adding a beat here and there, Smith transforms the songs into entirely new compositions while for Scott-Heron, his heart and soul still shines through.
Some of the interludes that made I’m New Here an open book of honesty are offered up again with a small twists and modifications. As Scott-Heron advises us to listen to our elders on “Parents,” Smith jams the walls with a scattered drumset and even through just thirty seconds of music, the interlude is left with a whole new feel. And elsewhere, on “Running” where Scott-Heron depicts how he had no other choice but to run – and smartly points out how the word itself has multiple meanings – Smith takes the bare-bones idea and clouds it with vocal inspirations and a slow groove of bass. These ideas make We’re New Here sound like much more than just a ‘remix album’ but rather, an intelligent dissection on what Scott-Heron beautifully gifted us with a year before. For Smith and Scott-Heron, the basis of being new is still very much fresh in our minds but for two musicians that obviously know what’s going on, We’re New Here stands as a firm success because of their skill and expertise.