Various Artists
Zen: A Retrospective / Zen RMX
Ninja Tune
2004
B-



it’s been ten years since Matt Black and Jonathan Moore (better known as early breaks pioneers Coldcut) decided to set up their own record label, an anniversary that Ninja Tune celebrates here with the release of not only a two-disc retrospective of label highlights, but another two-disc retrospective of the greatest remixes—and supposedly there’s a DVD in there somewhere too. As far as traditional 10th anniversary gifts go, it beats the hell out of tin and aluminum, doesn’t it?

Yeah, it does. The Zen retrospective showcases classics from DJ Food, Amon Tobin, Mr. Scruff, Kid Koala, Herablister, Fog, and of course, Coldcut themselves. Based on the cream of the material on this compilation, Ninja Tune could be considered one of the best (obviously) and most trend-setting (even more obviously) record labels of its time. Surprising, however, is the diversity shown here—there’s the kind of stuff that Ninja Tune grew its reputation on, slow, jazzy, trip-hop with de-emphasis on the hop like Amon Tobin’s “Sordid” or Cinematic Orchestra’s “Channel 1 Suite,” and funky, breaks-driven turntablism like Kid Koala’s “Fender Bender” and it’s fabulous. But equally impressive—and less characteristic of The Ninja Tune Sound--are more upbeat tracks like the big-beat frenzy of DJ Food’s “Dark Lady” or Ninja Tune hit single (meaning, like a couple other tracks here, you’ve heard it in a whole bunch of commercials or movies) “Get a Move On” by Mr. Scruff, which sounds suspiciously like a full-fledged dance song. And then there’s Fog, who just defy description of any kind. But more on them later.

The first disc of Retrospective is nearly flawless, flowing from one classic to the next—the finger-pointing frenzy of Coldcut’s “Atomic Moog,” to the aforementioned “Get a Move On,” to the surreal ska-hop skitter of Kid Koala’s “Skanky Panky,” hitting great one-offs like Bonobo’s “Pick Up” and Luke Vibert’s “Get Your Head Down” on the way. The disc begins to lose steam towards the end, but luckily an Amon Tobin track on the first disc is never far away, and the disc ends strongly with Fog’s “Check Fraud” and Cinematic Orchestra’s “All That You Give.”

The second disc, sadly, is more problematic. It starts off well with Coldcut’s sampladelic show-off “More Beats and Pieces,” but from there, the disc finds its all-stars relying too heavily on guest singers, and worse, guest rappers. Normally this wouldn’t be such a terrible thing, but for a retrospective that is so obviously a producer and DJ showcase, guest vocalists just get in the way of the enjoyment. The Ninja Tune crew didn’t pick terribly good ones, either—Sarah Jones’s rap over DJ Vadim’s “Your Revolution” is fairly lame, Seaming To provides excellent verses but an extremely stupid refrain to The Herbaliser’s “Something Wicked,” and What What’s contributions to The Herbaliser’s “The Blend” are resoundingly meh. Disc 2 is not without it’s high points, however, including Kid Koala’s hilarious “Fender Bender,” Cinematic Orchestra’s gorgeous “Channel 1 Suite” and what is probably the best one-off on the whole collection, Jaga Jazzist’s epic “Lithuania.”

It’s a fine retrospective, all told, but somehow—going stubbornly against my sworn philosophy that All Remix Albums Are Always Boring Always—it is almost entirely dwarfed by the remix collection. Since I’m unfamiliar with most of the original versions of these songs, I can’t be certain whether the set here is stronger because the originals are stronger than those on Retrospective, or simply because the remixes really are that good. But from the songs that appear on both collections, it appears that it really might be the mixers who are due the credit here.

Four Tet’s take on Bonobo’s “Pick Up” is fairly interchangeable with the original, but all the others are decidedly different and usually superior entities. In the hands of Dr. Rockit (a.k.a. Matthew Herbert), Cinematic Orchestra’s “All that You Give” is taken from a true soul ballad, spliced and diced, and comes out sounding almost like something that could be on a Matmos album. Cornelius gives the sardonic blast of Coldcut’s “Atomic Moog” a facelift, turning it from a persecution of U.S. military practices to, as the title would suggest, a tribute to the Moog synthesizer. And Manitoba fares best of all with Mr. Scruff’s “Sweetsmoke,” taking only the “ooooh”s from the original and constructing the stunning, eight and a half-minute gem of either collection—as the charmingly arrogant liners accurately claim, “the perfect mix of free prog and thumping house.”

Other highlights with unknown distances from their original formats include the Mr. P remix of Cinematic Orchestra’s “Evolution II,” sounding sort of like a second cousin of Goldie’s “Timeless,” the Tortoise-esque Galliano mix of Irresistible Force’s “Fish Dances,” and the impossibly creepy lurk of DJ Food’s “The Crow (Kaleidoscope Version).” And then, of course, there’s the Coldcut “Uptight Duck” mix of Fog’s gorgeous “Pneumonia,” a song that creates probably the first (and quite possibly last) honest and successful hip-hop-singer/songwriter-IDM hybrid known to man.

All in all, the remix album has a much higher strike rate than that of Retrospective, and with only 10 tracks per disc, it’s a bit easier to digest at once than Retrospective’s 33 total. It occasionally slides into vocal excursions, but unlike those on the regular collection, these complement and enhance the songs (with the notable exception of DJ Vadim’s “Edie Brickell”—what are they doing with this guy, anyway? Get rid of the deadweight!) Both are more than worthy purchases, but if you could only get one, the remix album is probably the more sound investment.

Happy 10th, Ninja Tune. Now put down the noise-makers and party hats. It’s time to get to back to work.


Reviewed by: Andrew Unterberger
Reviewed on: 2004-03-19
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