Merge Records has marked the occasion of 20 years in the business with a week-long festival, two books, multiple commercially available compilations, a subscription-based series of releases, and accompanying T-shirts and tote bags. SCORE! is the last of the widely available music components to this celebration. The anniversary compilation and the catalog-remix-compilation are two of the most self-congratulatory gestures labels have at their disposable. Combine that with Merge’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to promoting its 20th anniversary, and you have the ingredients for a useless collection of unnecessary aesthetic collisions. But SCORE! is an extremely listenable compilation, as much a testatement to the depth and breadth of the Merge catalog as to the adventurous spirit with which many of the remixers approach the material.
The opening track is “Kalgon,” from Polvo’s 1992 debut long-player, Cor-Crane Secret. The original is a two-minute burst of tension and release — a rock epic in miniature. Remixer Caribou stretches the song past the eight-minute mark, coaxing a hypnotic beauty out of the central riff and soaking the whole affair in his trademark sheen of electronica-inspired pop beauty. Another high-profile left-field electronica producer who conjures up a winning formula is Four Tet. His dance-pop remix of Guv’ner’s “Baby’s Way Cruel” uses a processed vocal and slowly growing momentum to rescue a non-album track from an also-ran mid-’90s outfit. The members of + / -, from New York, take a similar tack with the Rosebud’s “Bow To The Middle” (from last year’s Life Like LP), filling out the catchy folk-rock ditty with electronic beats and beeps to good effect. Electronic acts remixing electronic acts is the exception on this compilation, although Nashville’s Hands Off Cuba have a go at amping up the sound of Caribou’s “Irene” (from 2007’s Andorra), transforming the sleepy pop tune into a percussion-heavy anthem while maintaining the atmosphere of the original.
The centerpiece of the record is Jason Forrest’s remix of the Arcade Fire’s “No Cars Go.” The Arcade Fire is the most high-profile band on Merge, and handing over one of the group’s iconic tunes to Forrest — a sample-crazy DJ from the experimental electronica underground who used to brazenly release tunes under the name Donna Summer and runs a label called Cock Rock Disco — is a bold move. The result is no noise-heavy deconstruction, however; the production on the track is relatively restrained. Forrest retains the song’s core structure but fills it out with tasteful electronic flourishes. The track is a clear improvement on the original version, foregrounding the anthemic quality of the Arcade Fire’s music without sacrificing the earnestness that has gained them a massive following.
Another top-tier Merge artist that undergoes the remix treatment is Spoon. John McEntire of Tortoise and the Sea & Cake has had a go at remixing Spoon before, and his rather underwhleming reworking of “I Turn My Camera On” appeared on the Sister Jack single. His take on “The Ghost Of You Lingers” from last year’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is a haunting, focused effored. Paring the song down to its barest elements, he allows the inherent moodiness of Spoon’s music to pervade the whole track, never offering release. The result is an entrancing rejoinder to the lifeless sound of Spoon’s last couple records, effectively summoning the tension of their earlier work.
Only a few tracks here miss the mark: The Blow’s remix of Portastatic’s “Drill Me” is a perfunctory reading, while Teenbeat Records head honcho Mark Robinson’s take on the Magnetic Fields’ “Washington D.C.” takes an already flippant tune and makes it feel more tossed-off. Compare that Magnetic Fields remix to Xiu Xiu’s reading of another Stephin Merritt effort, the 6ths’ “Volcana!” The original vocal is by Marc Almond, a clear influence on Jamie Stewart’s singing. The resulting remix retains the structure of the original but transforms the instrumentation into a cacophony of noise, whirrs, and beeps. This is exactly what you might imagine a pairing of Merritt’s and Stewart’s aesthetic sensibilities might sound like, and it’s a stand-out success. The compilation ends with Junior Boys’ reworking of “Nashville Parent” from Lambchop’s ambitious Nixon LP. Junior Boys take the slow-burn approach here, letting the barest elements of the original tune seep through a sieve of their distinctly precise electronic pop sensiblity. The song doesn’t catch fire so much as smolder. It’s a fitting final note to a compilation dedicated to upending expectations and tunneling deep into the core of a song to unearth the unexpected.