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GIL SCOTT-HERON/MAKAYA MCCRAVEN We’re New Again gets 8/10


Gil Scott-Heron/Makaya McCraven
We’re New Again (A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven)
XL/Remote Control

8/10

For the 10-year anniversary of Gil Scott-Heron’s final album, I’m New Here, XL Recordings invited Chicago jazz musician Makaya McCraven to ‘reimagine’ the album with an all-new score. The result is a refreshing take on Scott-Heron’s brilliant swan song, shifting the perspective in either subtle or often dramatic ways to provide new insights into Scott-Heron’s incisive lyrics.

An immediately wonderful thing with any remix or reimagining of I’m New Here is another opportunity to listen to Scott-Heron’s rich baritone again. Within just that voice you can hear years of love and loss, triumph and failure, as he became a superstar poet/proto-rapper in the 1970s and early 80s. His fall was addiction to alcohol, cocaine and heroin, which all caught up with him by the 2000s, with bouts of homelessness and jail terms.

I’m New Here in 2010 provided some redemption, as it was his first album in 16 years, and touched upon love, loss, his family upbringing, growing up black in America and surviving addiction. The album was started a few years before its eventual release, with Scott-Heron passing away the following year. XL Recordings label owner Richard Russell provided just minimal electronic beat structures for the tracks, sounding very much like he was trying to stay out of the way of Scott-Heron’s words where possible.

McCraven’s reimagining is a largely successful undertaking, fuelling the tracks with Scott-Heron’s original predilections for soul, jazz and blues. A predominant feeling of the new tracks is one of forward movement, as opposed to the more spoken word feel of the original. Take one of the central tracks on the album, New York is Killing Me. McCraven lays down a pacey, swinging blues rhythm with a propulsive drum beat, Bo Diddly guitar licks and some icy McCoy Tyner-like piano stabs to frame. A Harlem gospel choir even sings along with Scott-Heron on his “Lord have mercy on me” parts. This shift nicely complements the original lyrics, bringing them comfortably home from someone from ‘Jackson, Tennessee’ (where Scott-Heron lived until age 12) looking to escape the potentially dehumanising power of living in NYC.

A clutch of tracks are meditations on addiction, and McCraven puts different emphases on each of these. For example, People of the Light alludes to the power of addiction that can plunge good people into darkness: “Standing in the ruins of another black man’s life/ Or flying through the valley separating day and night/ ‘I am death!’ cried the vulture/ ‘For the people of the light.'” McCraven sets this to a loping bass line with dissonant sax playing, and features some cut-ups of the original vocals, which appears occasionally and tends to complement, rather than detract, from the new tracks. The Crutch serves up another dirty blues number, with a steady rhythm that goes with Scott-Heron’s prophecy of doom from addiction.

Arresting tracks such as Running and Where Did The Night Go are also shifted in perspective, with the somewhat bleak originals subjected to pacier reworkings. In Where Did the Night Go a wild flute accompanies the intense lyrics about trying to compose a difficult letter that the narrator can’t seem to write while losing the passing of time through the night. Halfway through a skeletal drum beat kicks in, accompanied by a manic looping flute, emulating the mind caught up in its own sleepless thoughts.

Other highlights are the title track (a cover of a Bill Callahan song) and I’ll Take Care Of You, both of which are much more sweetly presented than in the original. On tracks like the latter and Me And The Devil it really does sound like Scott-Heron is jamming along with musicians in real time, a testament to McCraven’s mastery of both live and studio techniques.

Whereas the original was bookended by two spoken word pieces – On Coming From A Broken Home (parts 1 and 2) – here McCraven breaks them into four vignettes spaced evenly over the album, each with a different instrumental backing. This is a nice touch, and anchors this reimagining with the original.

In the end, how does this ‘reimagining’ stand up with the original as well as with Jamie XX’s superb remix album We’re New Here from 2011? If you’re a fan of the previous releases, then We’re New Again is an essential listen that will provide new insights into Scott-Heron’s words. Whereas Jamie XX’s pushed the electronic beats to places Scott-Heron had never really been to (including with earlier classics), McCraven takes it back to the blues and roots that accompanies most Scott-Heron’s lyrics throughout his back catalog. In this sense, it’s a welcome return, and one that you can imagine that Gil Scott-Heron himself would approve of, having taken that limousine to heaven nearly 10 years ago.

PAUL DOUGHTY

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