Friday, 15 August 2008

Soft Cell - Heat : The Remixes

I was given a great opportunity to review a new remix album 'Heat:The Remixes' from 80's synth-pop pioneers Soft Cell. I am not a huge fan but know many of their big singles so this was a challenge. I took the chance to talk about remixes and how remix albums can be reviewed and I hope I have done a decent job.

The review:

Cast your mind back to 1981. This was the time of dodgy fashion statements, synth-pop and 12' singles. It was also the time of 'Soft Cell' who told tales of inner city melodrama and gay culture. Like their compatriots Depeche Mode, the sound is a mix of earthy honest vocals and artificial machine generated music. 'Heat: The Remixes' is, unsurprisingly, a remix album of most of the band's short, yet impacting, back catalogue created by genuine fans.

So, how do you review a remix album? You can either constantly compare each track to the original, which would result in lots of sentences starting with 'Unlike the original...', or review each song at a standalone entity. Finding some common ground is preferable, as well as giving the songs the respect they deserve. More often than not a remix takes the 'normal' song and adds a long intro/outro and a dancified backbeat (see Perfecto's version of 'Even Better Than The Real Thing' by U2). Most of 'Heat: The Remixes' takes this approach. The alternative would have been to take a few key elements of a song and then make them into a completely different track. That rarely works but can produce some interesting results. And how do you carefully handle Mark Almond's voice and the atmospheric arrangements and deft keyboard skills of David Ball without swamping the original music?

The album has at its core the songs that made 'Soft Cell' such a huge band, if only for a short period of time. Almond and Ball burned fiercely for three years before the inevitable fizzle and torrent of singles collections, most of which have been reissued. Only time will tell if this is a necessary addition. One notable commendation is that this collection is not just filled with nine versions of 'Tainted Love' (ironic that the band's most successful single is a cover - but a good one). There are twenty six different songs from their prime, and given that Soft Cell only had a dozen or so singles, they have dredged the archives impressively. They could even miss out the likes of 'Down In The Subway' and 'Persuasion'.

Surprisingly the best remixes are not the best singles. This makes perfect sense. 'Tainted Love' for example is a drum and bass fuelled epic with Almond's delicious vocals right at the centre. The problem is how so you improve perfection? It is a difficult one to call as for the most part it is just an extended 12 inch single version with added backing. After a mish mash of vocals it quickly descends into repetition and then a neat ending. Mixed results. 'Bedsitter' is the same issue. It is two minutes before a proper start and the subtle rework that emerges is overlong. But the strength of the original always comes through. The big emotional centre piece 'Say Hello, Wave Goodbye' is another enigma. After the big drums and clumsy electronica the rest of the song is carried by the impressive chorus. Given the majestic solo performances of this favourite, it is surprising that Almond is happy with how this has been treated, particularly the last two minutes which get very heavy and overpowered. 'Torch' is probably the most anonymous remix. Again the backing is heavy with short blasts of brass and a prosaic 'talky bit'. The band's other major hit 'What' sounds like a bad 60s cover version.

The best of the collection is first single 'Memorabilia', pushed on by a persistent busy keyboard melody that threatens to overwhelm the vocals. 'Youth' is also very good and musically excellent. If anything it is the vocals that are clunky. 'Where The Heart Is' is a wonderfully soft glide with occasional electronic tweaks. It works well. 'Insecure Me' has a dodgy intro sounding like an 8 bit computer game from 1982. The last minute is also horrible and should have been cut but the rest is a great song of strings and meaningful lyrics. Almond is on top form. The title track 'Heat' has a menacing intro, layers of vocals and is full of theatre. B-side 'Barriers' is excellent - simple with no structure. Again Almond excels. The bittersweet 'Little Rough Rhinestone' is a song about abuse, alienation and questioning faith but runs along with a jolly keyboard arrangement. But the best track on the album is the gothic nursery rhyme 'Her Imagination', amazingly another B-side.

As you would expect from a twenty six track album, there are a few nasty moments. 'Seedy Films' has some nice enough musical touches but is not much of a song. The female vocal giggling and the last half are annoying as it attempts to build to a climax that does not happen. 'Numbers' is truly awful and unlistenable rubbish. At four minutes (one of the shortest remixes here thankfully) it is four minutes too long. 'Sex Dwarf' is also offensive. It sounds very out-dated and sleazy, summing up everything that most people dislike about 'Soft Cell'. The ending is embarrassing. This is followed by 'Baby Doll' which is both depressing and over-the-top at the same time. But the problems are few and far between.

Remixing sacred songs is always a fine art. There is a high risk of over complication and as stated before there are a number of overused tricks and some obvious traps. This collection gets it just about right. There are many extended intros, much of the new versions are way too long and outstay their welcome, but Almond's enigmatic voice is mainly left unmolested. If there is a general fault here it is that there is too much 'remix' and not enough 'Soft Cell'. But the reworks capture the mood of the time, while giving some of the tracks a modern twist. The essence of the songs and revisited themes are preserved so the band always takes centre stage. That should always be the case and thankfully it is here.
-- CS (for

No comments: