That Joshua Eustis and Charlie Cooper of Telefon Tel Aviv opted to name their compilation of remixes Remixes Compiled hints at the aura of procedural chilliness that partially plagues this work. Remixes Compiled is not especially inviting; it doesn’t strive to soothe with polished ambience, infect with propulsion, or even attempt to pose as a readily consumable electro-pop package. These remixes, whose source material ranges from Nine Inch Nails to German electronica outfit Apparat to jazz performer Oliver Nelson, mostly reside in a distant, claustrophobic, and thoroughly arctic sci-fi realm where metallic silver has replaced green as an indicator of life. This motif yields stretches of drabness, an error compounded by the detached, exercise-like quality that can accompany any electronic revamps. But, in the end, a decently mixed bag emerges from Remixes Compiled as a linear (even if unintentional) space narrative gradually comes into focus and creates effective moments alongside the misfires.
The coup de grace condemnation of this release should state that it’s unmanageably scattered, like compilations and soundtracks are wont to be. But, somehow, this wholly cinematic bundle of electronic music functions as a three-act suite. With no narrative-propelling lyrics as support, it’s just the soundscapes, so dense and textured, that chronicle an excursion of discovery, trepidation, and flight.
The Nine Inch Nails reboot “Even Deeper” initiates the first stage, which paints space travel as an alternately grating and ponderous affair. It sets in with drizzling guitar plucks and, through scarcely measured progression, gathers computerized blips and squelches that sound like HAL’s innards in Ritalin-addled dilapidation. The overall pacing remains halted, however, and creates dissonance between the withdrawn core and the skittish sonics that manically fly around it. Like the rest of this opening four-song stretch, “Even Deeper” is full of a mellow shiftiness that is sloppy but neither calming nor kinetic.
The spacey foray continues with “All Around”. Helmed by the plaintive vocals of Bebel Giberto, this hushed downer conveys the lethargy of a deep-space slumber. With spare clicks and gently strolling acoustics, “All Around” succeeds in this task but simply refuses to go anywhere beyond this idle drift. “Got Me Lost / Driving in L.A.”, while more active, still unfolds on a similarly aimless course and never achieves a natural climax.
It’s not until almost halfway through Remixes Compiled that Telefon Tel Aviv (Chicago-based, formerly of New Orleans) harkens back to the sonic gold that they mined on their 2001 debut Fahrenheit Fair Enough and 2004’s superior Map of What Is Effortless. On these releases, Eustis and Cooper rarely sacrificed steady progression on the altar of calming, ambient electronics. They stripped this seeming incompatibility of its mutually-excluding dynamic and landed at stellar outcomes.
At this improved juncture in the “narrative”, the locus of action has shifted to a freshly discovered land and, fittingly, the soundtrack to this act tempers the electronic foundation with earthier experimentation. “BBQ Plate”, an AmmonContact remix, heralds the arrival of these concrete and balanced executions. The shimmering, horn-like overlay and drippy pianos account for the more organic sound while its racing drum coda injects sorely absent momentum into the fray. The sense of inquisitive and triumphant exploration flows through the appropriately-named “The Green Green Grass” and the warmly placid “A Genuine Display”.
As much as a compilation of remixes can boast one, “Stolen Moments” operates as the centerpiece. Floating on a swell of strings and a gorgeous pitch of majesty, this swooner embodies, for narrative purposes, the moment of fevered euphoria when intrepid empiricism has ushered in progress. Like any competent thriller, however, the joy is short-lived and quickly comes under threat. The latter half of “Stolen Moments” suggests this fear as its symphonic skyline warps and darkens ominously. The tension-building “Time is Running Out” (again, appropriately titled) basks in this mood. Clearly the album’s murkiest passage, it’s like the thicket of Fangorn forest booby-trapped with cricket-like whispers, tightly coiled synth beats, and snakey blips. The alluring strangeness of these new environs has given way to uncertainty. No longer an expedition, it’s now an escape.
This middle section is the album’s saving grace. The final numbers—the ostensible flight back home—lose their focus and regress into chilly exercises, or are simply too long (see “Knock Me Down”). Then again, it seems reasonable to say that Telefon Tel Aviv didn’t intend Remixes Compiled to be an easy listen. Its glazed futurism upends the desires of our modern heart and its subdued pacing subverts the longings of our hips. Damn. This is electronic music that isn’t harnessed for explicit pop aims. But look for the space narrative. It’s not the Passengers soundtrack or Battlestar Galactica by way of Kraftwerk, but it’s a heady little diversion regardless.