Let It Be . . . Naked (Capitol)
Let It Be . . . Naked is remastering as revenge. On this odd project, Paul McCartney seizes the reins back from Über–control freak Phil Spector, offering stripped-down versions (hence the “Naked” of the title) of the producer’s swelling originals. Putting Naked together was likely satisfying for McCartney, but like a lot of inherently selfish artistic endeavors, it’s somewhat less rewarding for everyone else.
Replacing Spector’s orchestrations for the sparest imaginable mix, McCartney trades overdone for undercooked. McCartney’s treatment of “The Long and Winding Road” crystallizes the folly. This is perhaps the most sentimental of Beatles songs (“The wild and windy night the rain washed away / Has left a pool of tears crying for the day”), and Spector’s original orchestrations were fittingly gauzy. McCartney’s remix leaves just the soft, halting horn arrangements, probably so we’d focus on his songwriting. In that respect, he is totally successful. But the unintended consequence is that McCartney’s new “The Long and Winding Road” seems hoarier than ever.
The former Beatle isn’t the first to fail at the near-impossible task of reimagining a record: Even Iggy Pop’s much-anticipated cleaning up of the legendarily muddy Stooges record Raw Power was strangely unsatisfying. These “director’s cuts” also underscore the truth of a seeming contradiction: Producers are at once hugely important and completely insignificant. Pop-music history belongs as much to Sam Phillips and Timbaland as it does to Elvis and Jay-Z. But try as musicians and records labels might to, as Morrissey put it, “Re-issue! Re-package! / Re-evaluate the songs,” the songs themselves will remain very much the same.
This Is Not a Test! (Elektra)
Until last year’s Under Construction, Missy Elliott was never fully successful at making her shock-of-the-new hip-hop work throughout an entire album. Not that anyone ever minded. Singles like “Get Ur Freak On” and “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” were at once avant-garde and accessible, among the most significant feats for a pop musician to pull off.
With its retro trappings, Under Construction was an unexpected crowning achievement for Elliott and producer Timbaland: Its songs were stitched together from old-school hip-hop and the soul, funk, and R&B that inspired it. Ironically, the found sounds are what made Under Construction so magnificent. Like early hip-hop beat makers, Elliott and Timbaland discovered something entirely new in the familiar.
On This Is Not a Test!, Elliott unites her futurist and retro poles. It’s never boring, and more often than not, Timbaland’s soundsÂparticularly the ping-pong blips of “Wake Up”Âare astounding. But Test is an uninspiring pairing of Elliott’s twin sensibilities. Like the market-minded collaborations that run rampant on hip-hop records, Elliott’s range here feels like base-covering.
Still, this not-so-great record won’t diminish the incredible legacy of Elliott and Timbaland. MTV recently ran a long block of Elliott’s videos to celebrate the release of This Is Not a Test!; watching the program, you could see the bar for pop being raised with each new song. It’s become easy to take Elliott’s innovations for granted (especially as she and Timbaland have the work ethic of factory laborers). But I’ll bet that in the not-so-distant future, when pop is dominated by the sort of uninspiring production hackwork of records like Britney Spears’s In the Zone, we’ll more than miss this pair of pop auteurs.