He’s been aptly described by Allmusic’s Dean Carlson as a purveyor of “pretension-free, post-party intellectual chillout” music, but what really separates Bonobo, née Simon Green, from the chillout herd is, simply put, his melodicism. The humble ambitions of his chosen format limit the British producer to gentle folk and R&B hooks, which can be pretty on impact and sustained in repetition without trying a listener’s patience or giving him a headache. That might read as an unremarkable achievement, in the genre context of simple, soothing pleasures, and there certainly is nothing remarkable about Bonobo’s cool jazz and alt-rap inflected palette. But the unassuming nature of his approach makes the stickiness of (some of) his tunes that much more unforeseeable and impressive, putting him in the tradition of mesmerizing simplicity that Aphex Twin’s “Rhubarb” and Brian Eno’s ambient work, and Stars of the Lid more recently, exemplify. To this critic’s ears, Bonobo has yet to top his breakout single “Terrapin” in coaxing great beauty out of very little, but the surprisingly consistent whole of 2010’s suave and bittersweet Black Sands, now remixed by various artists at album length, comes pretty damn close.
Considering we listen to Bonobo for tunes and not sounds (even as we let him slip into the background) he should be easy fodder for a decent remix, which would — ideally — seize on what sticks in our heads and show us something new. Defamiliarization needs a familiar object first, after all, and what feels more familiar than a good hook? At album’s length, this project could theoretically be as generative and compelling as the original.
But Black Sands Remixed, for all its virtues, is not very generative or compelling. It offers a diffusion of Black Sands’ good hooks across the terrain of current beat-making trends that is tasteful but maybe a little too predictable. Giving Black Sands a dubstep or bass makeover is not much of a reach for this already moody, mobile music. Some serious imagination is lacking.
There are exceptions to this rule. Two brand new originals are highlights: “Ghost Ship,” a funky and lush bit of instrumental hip-hop, and “Brace Brace”, which follows in the orchestrated post-rock style of Black Sands’ title track. Meanwhile, that title track’s one remix, an ambient piece by Duke Dumont, closes the album on a deceptively oblique note, deconstructing “Black Sands” beyond recognition while somehow retaining the source material’s distinct mood.
For the most part, however, Black Sands Remixed does a lot of what you’d expect, favoring tracks centered on Bonobo’s current touring partner Andreya Triana’s breathy vocal lead. “Eyesdown”, in particular, gets no less than four iterations, three of them sequenced consecutively, two of them grimy, one of them dubby, none of them terribly interesting. Blue Daisy and Banks come close to something by refracting “Stay the Same” through a prism of blissed-out chillwave, and reimagining “The Keeper” via the cathartic pop of its bridge, respectively. Yet their work still feels unnecessarily additive, begging for Bonobo’s relatively economic songcraft. Elsewhere, Cosmin TRG’s deep house remix of “Kiara” is little more than a wasted opportunity. Only the frequently great FaltyDL manages to make his own voice heard, in his sweaty, shimmering take on “All in Forms”.
Black Sands Remixed therefore fails to deliver on the promise of opening up Black Sands’ ample spaces for reinterpretation. A few notable bright spots notwithstanding, it sounds too often like a survey of subgenres — folktronic, IDM, and the aforementioned house, ambient, and dubstep — grafted onto Bonobo’s melodic originals, with the lose-lose effect of tokenizing the former and underselling the potential of the latter. It isn’t a phoned-in affair — a lack of the usual remix stretchmarks, like rushed vocals or dynamic flatness, suggests the artist himself had a hand in curating Remixed — but neither is it exactly necessary. It settles demurely into secondary status, rather than boldly nominating itself as a companion piece. Perhaps it is unfair of me to hold something most likely released principally for devoted fans to an optimistic standard that is, for the most part, theoretical. But I’m a fan, too. And I think Bonobo, and the melodicism that makes him special, deserve better.