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Music Review: John Van Eps – Robert Lamm Songs: The JVE ReMixes

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And now for something completely different. Very different. So different, no verbal description can adequately summarize what producer John Van Eps has done to hits originally performed by the band called Chicago, specifically songs composed by keyboardist Robert Lamm. One description comes from publicity for the album:

“You might call it deconstructing the songs and rebuilding them from the ground floor up using their DNA. Eps even snipped lyric lines, juxtapositioning words to change meanings. You might even say Eps eviscerated these songs, gutted them like fish.”

Such violent verbs are appropriate. Few listeners familiar with “Beginnings,” “Saturday in the Park,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Questions 67 and 68,” or “Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?” will be able to readily relate what Eps has done to these songs to what we’ve been hearing all these years. The term “remix” implies re-working original tracks with a fresh and original approach based on established melody lines with perhaps punched up instrumentation, kicking in more modern rhythms, sandwiching samples from more than one song, or re-organizing verses and choruses. Eps went far, far beyond remixing. He threw out the baby and the bathwater, ripped the baby’s decomposed corpse to shreds (pun intended), and then assembled alien creatures built on a piece from here, and a bit from there. Furthermore, he did all this with the full compliance of the songs’ composer.

According to Lamm, he worked with Eps “strictly through email and file sharing, actively reviewing, refining, and some ways I was the Producer, and John was the Artist. I have so much respect for him as a person and a musician.” After all, the two had written and worked together on two of Lamm’s solo albums, Life Is Good in My Neighborhood and In My Head. Apparently, the rest of Lamm’s first band did not share this interest which is why only Lamm’s songs got the Eps treatment.

The set opens with “Beginnings” in which Lamm’s voice was run through various electronic sequencers uttering a few phrases from the original song. We hear no horns. Then, “Saturday in the Park” includes bouncing phrases of “people, people,” “change the world,” and short bits of other lyrics interjected in a percussive brew that does, this time, include short samples of the horn section.

For “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?,” Eps mixed echoing vocals that are recognizable as coming from the original—but the slower backing instrumentation is all new. Eps chose lines from “Questions 67 and 68” to create a smooth, soulful groove akin to “It’s A Groove, This Life” which borders on retaining much of the flavor of the original. But surreal carnival swirls convert “Another Rainy Day in New York City” into something concocted from a mislabeled chemistry set.

I’ll admit, “On the Equinox” sounds like an alternate version of the song, as if it was intended to be this way all along. But perhaps the most tortured song was “25 or 6 to 4,” as it went through two separate incarnations. One is the “Latin” mix with piano, acoustic guitar, and Latin percussion with the original vocals and horns popping in with a very, very different arrangement and flavor from Chicago’s performance. The “Dance” version offers stuttering vocals on top of a reasonably recognizable foundation. It’s as close to an obvious use of a Chicago song as anything on the album. But that’s only by comparison.

So who is the audience Robert Lamm Songs: The JVE ReMixes will appeal to? I suspect a tiny, tiny minority of Chicago fans. For some, it will be an eyebrow-raising novelty; for others, a blood-boiling meltdown. I can’t speak for new listeners less familiar with the Chicago canon and more accustomed to the 21st century soundscapes on this disc. Were this ostensibly a completely new release and marketed as such, it could be something fans of electronica may well dig on its own merits.

Perhaps I should give this one a second spin and try to hear the album on that level. But life is just too short for that. Perhaps I just got old. When I think experimental, I still think of Terry Kath playing “Free Form Guitar.” I liked Kath’s solo track the first time I heard it and still do.

As far as Eps is concerned, I’m all for breaking new ground, and there’s nothing sacrosanct about old hits. But he isn’t going a direction I want to follow.

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About Wesley Britton