Review by Dave Raskin
Alt J’s announcement of Reduxer, an album of hip-hop focused remixes from 2017’s Relaxer, wasn’t out of the blue. Following the release of their third record, the band quietly dropped five singles and a seven-track EP of remixes from Relaxer on major streaming platforms. However, their treatment of Reduxer has been different: it was released as full-length, and they are promoting it in the same way they would a standalone release. After a lukewarm critical reception for Relaxer, it’s tempting to think that Reduxer is the band’s attempt to redeem its largely unsuccessful parent. Despite its star-studded tracklist, Reduxer suffers from the same meandering lack of identity that plagues its source record.
The lead single, a remix of “In Cold Blood” by Twin Shadow featuring Pusha T, dropped immediately following a live debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The performance blended pre-recorded samples from the remix with live contributions by the band, Twin Shadow on guitar, and a refreshing second verse by Pusha T. The performance delivered on the promise of Reduxer’s potential, honing in on the strengths that define Alt-J at their best — their incontrovertible catchy hooks, delivered in harmony by frontman Joe Newnman and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton, and the sparse, timbrally idiosyncratic percussion of Thom Sonny Green — and repackaging them into a cohesive track that successfully blended their unique brand of indie rock with the worlds of hip-hop and electronica. However, when the single released, it differed broadly from the live performance in both form and arrangement. Twin Shadow’s delicate guitar contributions are absent, and, after a brief introduction of the chorus hook, the track launches directly into Pusha T’s verse. The order here is important. By front-loading the track with Pusha T’s uncharacteristically sedated 24 bars, the song transforms from an electro-indie track with a guest verse into a low-energy hip-hop cut with two minutes of filler tacked on at the end. In stark contrast to the live arrangement, this version of the song is a microcosm of the album as a whole: a Frankenstein monster of genres that doesn’t know what it is or wants to be.
Several tracks, however, serve as exceptions. Tuka’s reimagining of Alt-J’s version of “House of the Rising Sun” is a touching, brutally intimate account of his family’s strained relationship with, and eventual relocation away from an abusive father, and the way that history repeated with his mother’s next lover. The strength of this track lies in its thematic cohesion. The use of the now-ubiquitous first lines of the classic folk song (“There is a house in New Orleans / They call the rising sun / It’s been the ruin of many a poor soul / And, Lord, my father’s one”) as its chorus lays a strong framework for Tuka’s deeply personal take on the age-old story of a family escaping a debaucherous patriarch. Alt-J told NPR that their version continued, “… the folk process of taking a song, changing it, and passing it on." Tuka’s use of a scant few of the original’s core elements to expertly deliver its emotional content proves a much more powerful and innovative example of the folk process.
Lomepal’s version of “3WW” is another standout. Delivered in his native French, the track is an earnest, no frills love song. The lyrics describe the French rapper high and drunk, sleeping on the streets of Paris, longing for a lost love. He describes the unspoken communication that they shared, and mocks the concept of using words to tell a partner “I love you.” The ultimate line of the song, “Je voulais juste te dire je t'aime à ma manière,” roughly translates to “I just want to love you in my own way,” a subtle twist on the final line of the Alt-J sample that he uses as his chorus: “I just want to love you in my own language.”
Ultimately, Reduxer is hit-or-miss. Though a single, unified sound or vision can’t be expected on an album of remixes, it isn’t even a collection of all the strongest official remixes from Relaxer (check out some of the remixes on Deadcrushed or the singles by Shade / Code Orange). All this said, I think their performance of “In Cold Blood,” ostensibly the only piece of this project on which the band collaborated, could serve as a beacon of hope for the UK trio. If they practice stronger self-editing and allow room for producers or collaborators to fill in some of the gaps, they may soon find themselves creating killer, innovative material for the first time in years.
Recommended Tracks: "House Of The Rising Sun (feat. Tuka) (Tuka Version)", "3WW (feat. Lomepal) (Lomepal Version)", "In Cold Blood (feat. Kontra K) (Kontra K Version)"