Singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik has maintained a small but steady cult following, but he is best known for his 1996 debut single “Barely Breathing”. That song set the template for the kind of laid-back, undemanding yet inoffensive Adult Album Alternative mush that has been a significant part of FM radio ever since.
In retrospect, it would have been surprising had Sheik not ended up doing a trend-conscious covers album 15 years into his career. What was a bit surprising, though, was that album, Covers Eighties, was actually not bad at all. Sheik was born in 1969, so you couldn’t say it was a stretch for him to make such an album. Anyway, the ’80s are “hot” these days, a timely development for Sheik. Partly because in order to get anyone’s attention he had to cover ’80s songs people actually knew, and partly because the songs were actually pretty good in the first place, Sheik chose well-known tracks by early alternative stalwarts Depeche Mode, the Smiths, New Order, the Cure, Tears for Fears, Psychedelic Furs…you get the idea. No esoteric B-sides from the Band That Time Forgot, then. Despite the familiarity of the songs, Sheik paid genuine homage, his atmospheric, low-key arrangements calling attention to an underlying craftsmanship that was often overlooked at the time. If Covers Eighties came off as a “lite” version of Grant Lee Phillips’ like-minded nineteeneighties, at least it wasn’t an embarrassment.
So why push one’s luck by doing a remix album? For whatever reason, Sheik has. To his credit, or maybe to his publicist’s credit, he has enlisted some respected, of-the-moment names. Chi Duly, Gabriel & Dresden, El-P, Samantha Ronson, and Terry Urban are among the DJs and producers who have a go at Sheik’s versions of other people’s songs. This time, though, the gambit doesn’t work.
Many of the tracks here were some sort of synthesizer-heavy techno-pop in their original, ’80s incarnations. Maybe that’s why Sheik decided to let these remixers employ their own computers, synths, and drum machines on these tracks. However, in most cases, the new production simply overwhelms the very songcraft Sheik was trying to accentuate. In no cases do these remixes improve on Sheik’s original versions, much less the real originals.
Duly takes a very techno-pop approach to Tears for Fears’ “Shout”, forgoing the original’s complex percussion for a steady electro beat and ending up with something bouncy and bubbly that sounds like passable Vince Clarke. The Blue Nile’s “Stay” retains its airy, ethereal atmosphere; that’s probably because the remix was handled by Sheik himself. Bookworm’s take on Sheik’s take on Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It” qualifies as the set’s least-baffling track. Again, the progressive, jazzy feel of the original manages to come through.
“Life’s What You Make It” is also the only track here that doesn’t expose Sheik’s voice as thin, weak, and of limited range. That’s fine when he’s adapting that voice to his own style. But stuck in the middle of all the electronic blips and beeps, it really has no chance.
You could imagine that a remix album of a covers album might offer up a few opportunities for pure, unmitigated trainwrecks. Well, you have at least a couple picks here. If you have ever wondered what New Order’s lovely, melancholic “Love Vigilantes” would sound like as an electro dirge, El-P tries to provide an answer. Depeche Mode’s densely atmospheric “Stripped” as hip-hop? You can’t blame Urban for trying–or can you?
It’s really tough to see what the point of an exercise like Covers Eighties Remixed was. That is, if you discount the possibility it was to squeeze a bit more cash out of those dedicated followers. Or to provide The Onion with a shoo-in for its Least Essential Remix Album award for 2012 , which Covers Eighties Remixed duly received.