Raise your hand if you think Natacha Atlas sounds better obscured by waves of electronica.
Natacha Atlas has been making music for more than 20 years, dating back to the early 1990s when her husky voice and exquisite phrasing lent heft to recordings with Transglobal Underground and Jah Wobble. In 1997, Atlas began releasing studio albums of her own. Halim and Diaspora were rootsy, traditionally influenced albums, although Atlas was never a roots-music purist. Even those early efforts were not shy about incorporating electronic elements, and Atlas proved herself always ready to push the boundaries, as when she covered Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "(I Put) A Spell on You" on 2001's Ayeshtini.
Since then, she has moved to incorporating more r&b/hip-hop elements in her music. When her last album, 2010's Mounqaliba, re-introduced a more traditional acoustic flavour, utilizing both Turkish and Western orchestral arrangements, long-time fans were left wondering whether this was a return to her roots. The answer seems to be: apparently not.
Mounqaliba – Rising: The Remixes brings Atlas firmly back into club/dance territory, with multiple producers remixing her tunes with a variety of electronic and studio tricks. Several tunes get multiple reworkings, with "Batkillim" getting no fewer than five. It's good fun in a way, and Atlas's voice is capable of standing up to anything, but fans of her more traditionally inflected works are likely to hate this.
It's debateable whether the overall effect is an improvement on the original. The disc opens with one of the renditions of "Batkillim," featuring a great deal of electronic percussion and keyboard noodling. If Devo had come from Cairo, they might have sounded something like this. Better or worse? You decide. The things meanders along for nine minutes of electronic squeals and squeaks, as well as, oh yes, some singing.
"Batkillim: Recharged" incorporates more traditional Middle Eastern sounds amid the electronica, while the David Starfire remix pushes the synthetic sounds even further into the forefront. The Bombay Dub Orchestra Mix, dubbed "Atlas of the World," brings in something that sounds like the oud (Middle Eastern lute), but the chugging dance beat is never very far away.
And so it goes. There are three versions of "Taalet" and two of "Makaan," along with a handful that receive only one rendition apiece. The question, of course, is whether these various reworkings are notable enough to justify their inclusion. For a dance party, perhaps, the answer might be yes. Then again, don't expect that from "Ghoroub: For Tahrir Square." A rare moment of restraint on this album, it is a track that relies on low-key atmospherics to enhance the melody and mood.
The Beats Antique remix of "Makaan" is notable mainly for its egregious overuse of studio effects to manipulate Atlas's voice – something that just isn't necessary or desirable. The stuttering, stop-and-start twitchiness seems like something a bored high school kid would do, and it adds absolutely nothing to the track.
Then again, the overarching question for this entire collection is: do these mixes add anything to the originals? Fans of electronic dance music might say yes, but to my ears, the manipulation merely detracts from the central strength of the performances. Like Baaba Maal or Youssou N'Dour, Natcha Atlas possesses a voice of rare quality, one that needs little or nothing to help it express its impressive emotional range. Much of the sonic clutter here serves merely to get in her way.