To some music fans, remix is a dirty word. That is easy to understand if one thinks of modern approach to remixing. A lot of today’s remixers do it the wrong way, throwing out much of a song’s instrumentation and grafting on gratuitous new production with a Frankenstein-ian lack of sensitivity towards the original recording. However, a remix can be a thing of beauty in the proper respectful hands and allow the listener to enjoy an old favorite from a new angle as it draws them deeper into its grooves.
One of the masters of this approach is Tom Moulton, whom many a disco and R&B fan recognize as the pioneer of the format. His mixing aesthetic is built on working within the recording itself: he extends and/or invents intros, outros and instrumental breaks in a way that gives the listener more of the good thing they tuned in for. The end result never feels like padding. Instead, it feels like new layers of detail and ear candy have been brought up to enhance the song’s pleasure level.
Philly Re-Grooved is Moulton’s latest album-length venture and it’s good to hear that his classical remix approach is very much intact. This time, the songs he is working with come from the catalog of Philly Groove Records, an independent label run by producer Stan Watson (who had a hand in all but one of the tracks included in this compilation). Moulton did a similar-themed compilation back in the 1970’s with Philadelphia Classics, a compilation of remixed songs from the Philadelphia International label, and this new album is very much the musical/spiritual descendent of that beloved favorite.
The songs are all arranged and produced in the classic Philly soul style, with all the usual Sigma Sound suspects providing the instrumentation and arrangements. A few are prototypical disco tracks but you don’t have to be a disco fan to appreciate this set as its main focus is lushly-arranged R&B that weds grit and gloss with skill. Cult favorite girl-group First Choice commands a lot of the running time with no less than five tracks: gems include the classic Northern-Soul stomper “This Is The House Where Love Died,” which has its intro liberally extended so listeners can focus on how it seamlessly weds percussive string and horn lines to its throbbing beat, and “Gotta Get Away,” which adds new breaks to highlight the intricacies of its complex arrangement.
Other classic Philly soul legends get their due on this set: for instance, “I Told You So” by the Delfonics and “Ruby Lee” by Nat Turner (with Major Harris handling lead vocal duties) are extensions that show off the richness of the arrangements without leaving their stellar vocal tracks on the sidelines for very long. There are also some cult gems that are equally worthy of notice. To Your Humble Reviewer’s ears, the winner in that category is “Big Stone Wall (Around Your Heart)” by Tapestry, a tracks that weds a clever, Smokey Robinson-esque lyrical concept to a rousing melody that is pumped by a hearty, brass-fortified arrangement.
However, the two killers of this set are the last two tracks. The first of these is “Don’t Put Me Down” by Finishing Touch. It glides in on an elegant, jazzy groove where electric piano sets the mood over a soft but insistent beat before blossoming into a grand, dreamy ballad where shifting layers of harmony vocals and shivery strings ebb and flow in a hypnotic style. The other is “Whatcha Gonna Do” by Heaven ‘N Hell and it’s cut from a similar cloth: a sinuous, string-laced backing track with a steady beat serves as the backdrop for a group of singers trading lines as they build in a gospel-tinged style towards a majestic chorus built around a percussive chant of the title line. Moulton seamlessly mixes both songs through multiple cycles of tension and release that are positively hypnotic — if you’re a fan of this sound, you’ll never want either song to end.
The only real flaw with Philly Re-Grooved is the mastering. As a few readers pointed out to Your Humble Reviewer, the disc has been mastered at a high volume. A listener’s level of trouble with this will depend on their sensitivity to this issue — it didn’t make the end result unlistenable for these ears but the more aggressively-layered tracks did sound noticeably “cramped.” Despite this unfortunate problem, the disc remains a good listen thanks to Moulton’s stellar work. It also includes a nice set of liner notes that cover Moulton’s biography and interesting trivia about the Philly Groove label.
In short, Moulton aficionados will want to check Philly Re-Grooved out — the auteur of the remix has still got it.