Girl Talk returns with a surprise (and free) new album of mash-up fervor, but the formula's wearing thin by now.
The most impressive thing about the latest Girl Talk album is the vast arsenal of “UNH!”s and “OH!”s and “AY!”s that Gregg Gillis has amassed and put on display. On his new record, All Day, the mash-up hero may have collected every single utterance of those syllables committed to tape by a hip-hop artist in the last, say, 30 years. It certainly feels that way. If his decision sounds to you like it might be somewhat excessive, you have good instincts.
Pulling apart a Girl Talk record—admitting to anything less than six-pack-of-Four-Loko crazed enthusiasm at every beat and pitch shifted vocal—makes one feel like the ultimate killjoy. At the very least, offering a critique seems to miss the point. Isn’t this music meant to be pure candy, the equivalent of offering free kegs of high fructose corn syrup along with the Natural Light at your next party?
It is free, anyway. Gillis surprise-dropped the album on his label’s website, giving downloads away to anyone and everyone for not even the price of an email address. It’s a nice gesture, and one that gives further credence to his (undisputed?) title of Ultimate Party Maestro. So why interrogate the music? Why flick the lights on and off and herd people toward the front door?
To put it plainly: it’s just not as easy to lose yourself in All Day’s charms. If All Day is a party, it’s one on New Year’s Eve, something anticipated with unparalleled excitement but consistently disappointing and vaguely unsatisfying when it finally arrives. Night Ripper and Feed the Animals showed Gillis making good on the spotty promises of his earlier efforts, both albums consistently energizing, engaging, and—perhaps most importantly—wonderfully self-aware. One of Gillis’s greatest talents showed itself in his uncanny ability to splice together disparate elements in a manner that made them not only interesting, but pointedly fun-loving. In other words, they were funny. Mashing up, respectively, Rick Springfield’s and Three Six Mafia’s expressed desires, Gillis came up with “I wish that I had Jessie’s girl, / but I’d rather get some head.” Crude, sure, but try not to laugh in spite of your better angels. Or in even greater moments, when humor took a backseat, he’d create truly transcendent moments in his mixtures, making them seem wholly natural and almost inevitable, like two friends you’re sure would love each other but whom you haven’t yet been able to bring together in a room. B.I.G. and Elton John. Trina and Fleetwood Mac. Kanye and Blackstreet. One could go on.
When he released Feed the Animals, Gillis made it known that he wanted to shy away from Night Ripper’s more contemporary base of samples and reach backward more thoroughly into the annals of pop, rock, and classic R&B. On All Day, he doesn’t seem to have any overarching ideology, no consistent ethic in mind to give the record a sense of cohesiveness. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a formula. Here’s Gillis’s on this album: find either a contemporary pop song or a classic rock song to provide a backing instrumental track, add a verse or two from a popular hip-hop track, and serve. This blend occupies perhaps 90% of aural space on All Day, and that proves to be too much to keep things interesting for very long. A formula’s only a problem when your audience becomes aware of the formula. Gillis's error is a in presenting a lack of diversity. Why not mash-up, say, two disparate rock songs? A slice of 1960s soul with its 1990s counterpart? Almost literally any other genre with almost literally any other genre?
Sure, there are highpoints here, moments where Gillis’s choices sound truly inspired. It’s a wonder it took him this long to isolate Fugazi’s peerless rhythm section, for example. Toto’s “Africa” gives Foxy Brown’s “Hot Spot” a nicely grimy, futuristic vibe (and fades beautifully into Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”). Blue Oyster Cult suits Nicki Minaj. “Dancing in the Dark’s” synth line already seemed prescient in today’s electro climate, and it proves a nice wave for N.E.R.D. to ride. Flock of Seagulls might need to reunite to make an album with Drake. These pairings, and a number of others, are all more than worth hearing.
That’s always been the real success of a Girl Talk record—piecing together the samples with your friends, filling in the parts of the puzzle that they can’t pinpoint, and feeling the rush of elation that comes when everyone recognizes a moment together. It just seems like Gillis is going through the motions this time around. We get plenty of obligatory recent pop smashes. Gaga, “Party in the USA", Katy Perry, Ke$ha, they’re all here. Gillis also taps into the indie sphere a bit more heavily than he did on Feed the Animals, hitting up MGMT, Phoenix, Arcade Fire, and The Rapture. Most of these are paired with adequately filthy hip-hop. The materials are all here, but they’re not coming together into the perfect confections Gillis has previously served up to increasingly hungry and fawning audiences.
One of the reasons for this misstep is the pacing. Gillis seems less frenetic on All Day, less possessed by a manifesto of cramming as many samples into as small as space as possible. This decision could’ve been interesting, allowing his work to breathe and really let the considerable hooks sink in. However, most of the (comparatively—we’re still talking sixty-to-ninety second bursts, here) longer mash-ups lose their novelty quickly and end up plodding along. All Day opens with “War Pigs” underneath “Move Bitch", but do we really need so much of Ludacris’s verse? At the opposite end of the album, the same problem crops up again. John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a song that could be an idiosyncratic choice of such a level as to catapult it to an instant Girl Talk classic, plays for two minutes without much tweaking. UGK provide some rapping, but the beat’s so languid as to send it all into the background. Sure, by now the album’s winding down, but it’s reflective of a greater issue. Perhaps Gillis has conditioned his audience into full-blown ADHD of unparalleled proportions, but so be it. We expect a constant head-rush at this point, and he’s not giving it to us. Hearing Jay-Z rap over “I Melt With You” is purely joyful, but it’s just not enough. Here’s to hoping Gillis finds a way to keep the party going next time.