[26 November 2012]
The Twilight Sad’s No One Can Ever Know should have come packaged with painkillers and razorblades. But suggesting that it’s a simply a dark album cheapens its expressive tones, its morbid lyrical content, and its gut-punch nerviness. No One Can Ever Know is a cathartic album, one that doesn’t race to the bottom, but slowly descends level-by-level, track-by-track, as if Virgil himself were guiding you down to the center of the Earth.
Despite its pallid exterior and moribund nature, the Twilight Sad took a great leap forward from their noisy guitar/bass/drum releases into a realm of compressed synths and jittery, programmed drums. It’s the kind of metamorphosis that most bands try to pull off late in their careers to the pleasure of no one. The results are usually mixed (the Replacements’ Don’t Tell a Soul springs to mind) and a band’s identity, at best, suffers a black eye. But the Twilight Sad have, so far, embraced their direction with certainty—hence the further delving into electronic territory with the release of No One Can Ever Know: The Remixes.
Offering a remix album of the Twilight Sad’s previous LPs would be treacherous, but Remixes works fittingly because of its strong, synth-based source material. Tracks like “Alphabet”, “Nil”, and “Sick” with their electronic baseline are ripe for the picking or, more appropriately, the dissecting. Stems and samples of the source material are chopped and looped by some well-known indie rock stars and remix agents including Brokenchord, the Horrors, and Liars. It’s always a good sign to recruit star talent when trying to reinterpret already-strong tunes from a powerful album.
Comparing the originals to the remixes won’t work. That’s the precondition for any remix album. Some of the tracks are indecipherable from their original blueprints making for a brand new listening experience. “Sick” is tackled three separate times on Remixes; twice by Brokenchord and once by Com Truise. The Brokenchord tracks bookend the album with the first remix of “Sick” coming out stronger than the burdensome, unnecessary second remix. Where Brokenchord’s first take on “Sick” sounds eager and propulsive, the second breaks the mood by looping the vocal track at a distracting tone, causing an otherwise impressive first showing to degrade into annoyance. Com Truise takes a pursists’ approach to the track, keeping James Graham’s superb vocal track as the centerpiece and draping it with synth sounds that owe a bit to the Crystal Castles soundbook. It’s not be the strongest track on Remixes but it manages to be unique in its own way.
Liars’ near-eight minute reworking of “Nil” is the standout and the centerpiece among the remixes, placing all of the distinctive elements of the source material—the churning synths, the disintegrating piano, the pain in Graham’s vocals—and turns out a singular opus. The song shifts from the gurgling sound effects in its intro to a long synth line that winds itself down like a broken toy. The middle four movement morphs into a new tune altogether before circling back in on the recurring theme. The Horrors pick up the quote-unquote momentum after Liars’ remix with their own gothic take on “Not Sleeping”. While “Not Sleeping” strips the vocal out entirely and keeps the tempo beaten to a lull, the track still strikes a nerve as a layered ambient piece—a stepchild of something Tim Hecker and Matthew Dear might produce if they were on downers. However, Warsnare’s remix of the same track suffers the same fate as Brokenchord’s second remix of “Sick”, a comical, hyper-inflated vocal track distracts from the power of the instruments. Attacking a vocal track is tricky proposition, but turning Graham’s broodish Brogue accent into a Mickey Mouse loop can’t sound a good idea to anyone behind the MacBook. And if it did, shame on them.
Sadly, “Alphabet”, arguably the strongest track on the original LP, is treated to two remixes, both of which fall flat from unimpressive alterations. And the selected tracks on Remixes show little variety in their choosing; only four of the nine tracks get the remix treatment on Remixes while other tracks full of potential (“Dead City” and “Kill It in the Morning”) are abandoned altogether.
Remixes is an assorted bag of impressive highs and frustrating lows. Any attempt to remake and improve on the sullen melodies of No One Can Ever Know is destined to be an exercise in experimentation and, to a lesser extent, homage. Some artists on Remixes show off their natural inclination to reinterpret songs through their own filter, and some falter under studio tricks. Remixes would have made a solid companion disc had it been packaged as a bonus disc in a deluxe edition. But shelling out more money for remixes of tracks that were damn close to perfect as it were seems extraneous, unless you’re a manic devotee of The Twilight Sad. In that case, Remixes is more than worth your time. All others should start at the beginning.