[15 January 2009]
I guess it’d be wrong to ask whatever happened to 12” mixes (briefly: CD ‘maxi-singles’, shitty dance remixes, and the death of the single via MP3), but it’s still a striking and pleasant surprise to run into a band who seems capable of more than just remembering them fondly. “Never Hear Surf Music Again”, the casually epic lead-off track to Free Blood’s new singles compilation, plays to my ears like one of those old better-than-the-single 12” mixes that took a good song and made it great by stretching out the dance sections, adding in interesting digressions, and generally adding new levels of sonic interest to the song (via instrumentation or vocal performance or what have you). The best of those remixes were where pop smarts, dancefloor utility, and avant-garde tinges came together to meld harmoniously, and it’s to Free Blood’s immense credit that they manage to summon up that feeling on all six of the original songs here.
John Pugh used to be in !!!, but other than the moments when he gets Molly Schnick from their defunct sister band Out Hud to put her cello to good use again, the connection isn’t at all apparent. Ever since he teamed up with fashion designer Madeline Davy (who thankfully doesn’t sound like anything but one half of a vital team, day job notwithstanding) to sweat all over warehouse parties with self-described “awkward sex jams”, their music has been sparse where !!!’s is lush, which means you don’t get any incredible funk/kraut jams, but you do get compact, tight songs that can twist and turn in unexpected ways. It’s hard to say whether Free Blood’s songs have choruses per se, but the like of “Grumpy” and “Quick and Painful” are as catchy as any three-minute verse-chorus-verser. By the time you get to the frankly astonishing “Parangatang” and its crashing surges, there shouldn’t be any doubt that Free Blood is a band to watch—although as with many great singles bands, I do wonder how well they’ll adapt to album-length efforts, if they even attempt that in the conventional sense.
But if there’s an EP’s worth of perfection here, there’s also another five tracks and 35 minutes to account for. Five of the six tracks from the singles have been remixed, and while those remixes aren’t anything for those involved to be ashamed of, they almost always fall short of the genius Free Blood display on their songs. Some of these re-works may even be more ruthlessly efficient dancefloor creations, but as all the handlers take the more modern tack of drastically altering the original, there’s none of the primal glee, the elongation and maximization of the pleasure found in the original song, that you used to get in 12” mixes. The best remix here is the rather gonzo take on “Royal Family” by the Brothers (who also produced the original singles), which begins with a manic loop of Davy and Pugh’s cries of “Sounds sounds sounds good to me!” and hit full boil when it repeats that frenzied moment over heavily buzzing synths.
Other than that, the remixes are mostly valuable to the home listener by giving you a chance to hear the odd, compelling little moments that Free Blood songs hang on in new contexts, but that mostly just leaves you craving the original. It’s a good sign for the band that you’re left craving more so intensely once you’re through with The Singles; in many ways, this is the most promising dance music to come out of NYC in quite a while. Now that they’ve primed us, we can only hope Free Blood can deliver more than half a classic next time.