In the liner notes for Night Ripper, Girl Talk’s Gregg Gillis offers thanks to the 164 seperate bands and artists he sampled in building the album, from Three 6 Mafia to Paula Abdul to the Breeders. Spread over 16 tracks, the samples range from a minute of a rap a cappella to a couple seconds of looped guitar, all cobbled together and overlayed so that as many as four or five familiar components may be audible at any given time. As such, the music would appear to occupy a space somewhere between the most frenetic DJ mix ever conceived and a ridiculously complicated mash-up. But whereas mash-ups and DJ mixes are still intrinsically, inescapably defined by their components, a Girl Talk song is something all its own.
In arranging pop-culture collages capable of transcending their source material, Girl Talk may be comparable to recent press darling and plunderphonic artist Jason Forrest (formerly of Donna Summer). But where Forrest and many of his contemporaries typically rely on heavy DSP processing and deconstruction of their material (though for Forrest, less so on his latest), with occasionally angular, clunky results, Gillis’ work is often seamless and surprisingly catchy. It’s fragmented pop, yes, but still very much pop. Even the extra drum loops and synth parts of his own creation that Gillis occasionally adds into the mix compliment rather than overshadow the rest.
Admittedly, that description—of songs that sound undeniably new despite their obvious building blocks—applies best to the last Girl Talk album, Unstoppable. Night Ripper seems to edge back a little closer to DJ mix territory, with track divisions mostly inconsequential to the ongoing flow of amalgamated pop. The individual tracks, then, seem to lack beginnings and endings of their own and are less individually cohesive or unique than those of Unstoppable, and a heavier emphasis on hip-hop a cappellas running over the top of everything reduces variety a bit. Given that many hip-hop vocals are essentially pitchless, their liberal use can seem a little too easy, as well (compare, again, to Unstoppable, which managed to pit, convincingly, Kelly Osborne against Creation’s classic “Making Time”). All of that aside, Night Ripper would still sound great, start to finish, as the backing track to a party, which seems as if it may have been the goal here.
On either album, Gillis’ best mixes seem so natural that they immediately supplant the originals in the listeners’ memory. “Juicy” is a classic in its own right, but I’ll never hear it again without wishing Biggie was always backed, as here, by nostalgic piano riffs and a sped-up Elton John singing “Tiny Dancer”. Likewise, the Ying Yang Twins’ “Whisper Song” has never sounded as good as it does laid on top of the “Bittersweet Symphony”, itself already the cause of a sampling lawsuit for its use of a four-bar Rolling Stones sample. Naturally, the irony of reusing that clip yet again—and the challenge to corporate lawyers—is not lost upon Gillis, or the Illegal Art label, who released the disc and seem to welcome the publicity a legal battle would bring, both for the music they release and for the (worthy) cause of “fair use” in art.
While I may be disappointed with the retreat from more intricately organized songs, Night Ripper still holds undeniable appeal, both for sample trainspotters and music geeks (I still can’t locate half of these alleged sources - Neutral Milk Hotel?!) as well as, more importantly perhaps, for the much broader cross-section of listeners who just want to put on a consistently catchy, entertaining record. As suggested even by the name Girl Talk (dredging up early-90s pop culture memories of some kind of truth-or-dare board game that involved fake zits as a penalty), Gillis is a true pop scientist, culling as many references as he can from all across the musical spectrum. As such, there’s something here that will be near and dear to almost anyone, however lovingly disassembled its current state.