It was the concept I liked, that’s why I decided to review the CD. Give the audience access to the basic tracks so they can play around with the sound and make it more to their liking: it’s a variation on a theme that’s been starting to appear as people’s home computers have become more sophisticated in their abilities to deal with music files and information.
Discs like IR2 have made individual tracks available online for people to either include in their own songs, or to remix into different forms. David Byrne and Brian Eno have released tracks from their early 1980′s found sound experiment My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts online for people to play with and generate new music.
So when I read that a performer named Duncan Sheik was issuing a special DVD ROM with his latest CD, White Limousine that would allow his audience to remix some of the material, I thought what a good idea. I know from my own personal experiences that there is plenty of material out there I would love to get my hands on to do just that: either turning the bass track down, increasing the lead vocals, or putting a little more oomph in the guitar – something that would make the song sound better to my ears. At first blush it sounds like something very democratic that the performer is offering his audience: I know not everyone has the same tastes, so why don’t you change it to suit your needs?
But after listening to White Limousine I’ve had second thoughts on the matter. How many composers would allow anyone to mess about with what they considered their final take on something as personal a piece of music? In the first two instances I talked about, what’s being offered are tracks that have been previously recorded to be used as the basis for a song, any song: chants from South Pacific indigenous peoples, drums from the Amazon basin, radio broadcasts, and other third party creations.
In his release notes where he talks about the idea, Duncan Sheik says “there are countless other versions of these songs that one might attempt and I’m genuinely interested in what other people do with this material.” The software that’s shipped with the DVD ROM splits each song down to its component tracks, and allows you to remix them to your heart’s content.
I guess it would be fun for people who are into playing with other people’s music and not creating their own, but personally I can’t see the point except as a marketing tool. When I’ve watched musicians mix down their songs, they’ve been in agony trying to ensure everything matches what they heard in their head when they composed it. They’re usually more liable to let someone sleep with their partner than mess with the final mix of their music.
I personally wonder about a person’s commitment to their music if they are willing to surrender control of it just to see “what other people do with this material”. Can you see Van Gogh offering someone a brush to add some daubs of colour to “Starry Night”? He might do the “Lend my you ear bit” from Shakespeare first, literally; and with a dull palate knife.
Maybe I had all these thoughts because the music on White Limousine left me quite cold. Everything is very competently played and the mix is impeccable but the songs felt like they were trying too hard to be meaningful and emotional.
On a song like the title track “White Limousine” which is supposed to be an up-tempo, anthem style rock number, with the lyrics supplying an ironic counter point, the oomph of emotional commitment to the song isn’t there to make it feel like an anthem. It feels like a middle-of-the-road ballad singer trying to sing a rock song.
This album is plagued by “Sincerity” with a capital “S”, and reminds me unfortunately far too much of the soft rock that was so popular in the early to mid 1970′s, where genuine emotion was a commodity in short supply. It lacks the genuine simplicity of folk music, or the raw energy of rock, and falls into some intermediate void between the two.
Pseudo-poetic lyrics are set against a backdrop of soft synthesized keyboards, muted guitars, bass, and the occasional string arrangement. Lyrics like “Here and there/Haunting my closets and drawers/My evermore, Now and then/Forgetting that everything’s changed/I call her name” (“I Don’t Believe In Ghosts”) aren’t about to make Leonard Cohen lose sleep in worry over the competition.
To be fair to Duncan Sheik, maybe it’s just his music doesn’t appeal to my sensibilities; he’s been given good press from loads of other media, but then again I’ve never been a People magazine person. Perhaps if that’s the world you move in, these trite pieces of sophism will appeal to you and you can have fun remixing the material. But to me it would just be a waste of time.