Childish Gambino, Bon Iver and More Rework Brittany Howard Songs on ‘Jaime (Reimagined)’
Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard released the critically acclaimed solo album “Jaime” in 2019, baring all in a wildly expressive, boldly experimental set of hard-hitting, soulful songs. With material that explored sociopolitical concerns and gender stereotypes along with romantic interests and life experiences, the album was an ambitious, comprehensive undertaking. Now, Howard returns to the source material with a staggering roster of artists who try their hands at reworking songs from “Jaime.” Although the recruited artists don’t generally contribute enough of their signature styles to make a major impression, the remix album, “Jaime (Reimagined)” abounds with original reworkings that recontextualize the original songs, function as a critical retrospective, and streamline the subject matter into easily digestible new creations.
The first track to be reimagined is “13th Century Metal,” named as such because it sounded simultaneously like Gregorian Chant and heavy metal. English singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka takes up the task, chiseling the weighty original into a lean production. The dense instrumentation and abrasive overtones of the “Jamie” version are filtered down to a clean, jazzy backdrop. Like a majority of the new remixes, this track features a steady, funky beat and chaotic vocals from Howard repurposed as ambient texture. The song plods along with a steady groove, as Howard evangelizes over the beat, her voice growing distorted and descending in echoing trails at select moments. Instead of intensifying in the end like the heavy original, Kiwanuka’s cut stays mellow and winds down easily. Next comes a reworking of “Goat Head,” a dark song recalling Howard’s experiences with racism, growing up in the deep south. Situated geographically to share Howard’s general perspective is Atlanta hip-hop duo Earthgang, recruited to rework the track. They sample the instrumental refrain of the original like a hip-hop track typically would, dropping a beat with a growling bassline. Rapper Johnny Venus begins his verse calling out, “America the brutalizer.” He and WowGr8 take turns rapping, each rambling freely and whimsically darting from one non sequitur to another, but dropping vaguely socially conscious references along the way. Howard contributes a new singsong vocal for a refrain that is deceptively lighthearted.
Childish Gambino sharpens and modernizes “Stay High,” digitizing the drums. He starts the track off with an awkward, slightly disorienting drum pattern, and offers catharsis when it breaks into a standard beat. Florid strings swell into the mix and dissipate, along with assorted sound candy. The beat goes on with its mellow, slightly offbeat funk creating the feel of West Coast hip-hop, Sweden’s Little Dragon take liberties with the enamored exclamations of “Presence,” and preserve, but moderate, the slapdash feel of the original. They transform the song into a whimsical electronic endeavor as a pulsating synth figure emerges, and a skeletal rhythm takes shape around it. Singer Yukimi Nagano lends her voice for a few lines and adds harmonies to Howard’s vocal, but doesn’t exactly transform the track. In a highlight, Justin Vernon, better known as indie establishment figure Bon Iver, reworks the giddy “Short and Sweet,” removing the drums until the very end, keeping Howard’s vocal at the forefront, and presenting it in higher fidelity. This stark exposure emphasizes the vulnerability in the vocal, as Howard hits rather jarring high notes and assumes deranged forms, Vernon tinkers constantly with the backdrop, adding ambience and colorful sound effects, and creating fleeting sound collages that simulate the fanciful dreamlike state of the smitten speaker.
Toronto instrumentalists BadBadNotGood dress up “Tomorrow” with a busier backdrop than the sparse original, resulting in a more grounded version. A tightly knit band keeps busy at the core, captured in a mix with prominent hi hats, as a slick bassline vigorously tip-toes about the beat, and free jazz outpourings ensue. “Baby (Gitty Remix,)” featuring Syd, employs a barebones beat with skittering hi hats, slap bass, and sounds that zoom in and out erratically, adding a new, sporadic edge that mimics the sensation of being swept away, Syd’s vocal is light and effortless, making Howards crazed utterances stand out more. Like the original, the rework grows darker and more dramatic in the end, but is less volatile overall than the original
Soulful L.A. polymath Georgia Anne Muldrow reconfigures “Jaime” opener “History Repeats,” adding a prominent drum track, a potent, funky bassline, and a choppy overlay of effects. Ambient vocals from Howard ring in the distance, as Muldrow chimes in at moments, steeped in reverb. Her dubbed out arrangement preserves the quirk of the original, but gives it a more open, airy feel. Next, “Georgia (J Most Remix)” increases the template’s tempo, adding a steady groove with abundant, funky bass. The offbeat quality of Howard’s voice ends up slightly offset by the smooth instrumentation. There is a percussion-less portion of the song, in which the remix surpasses the original in intensity, conjuring a suspended state with a wondrous swirl of ascending keys and haze. The return of the beat is less of an eruption than a spring back, differing in its dynamics from the original cut.
UK producer Fred Again and Jay Anonymous present “Stay High again..,” a much greater departure than Bon Iver’s reworking of the same song. They place “Stay Away” in a dancefloor context, allowing energy to build and release, eventually breaking into blissful disco revelry. The producers at the helm slice, morph up and distort vocal snippets from Howard, and introduce pitched-up voices that add a playful feel. Rapper and producer 9th Wonder tackles the ambivalent religiosity of “He Loves Me,” giving it a brighter overall sound. Over raw, crisp kicks and snares, he fills in some of the original’s empty space of original with an intricate, jazzy, wah-wah-heavy backdrop that recalls early Outkast, Rapper Common makes utterances at strategic moments and finally drops a short, tepidly delivered verse of vaguely Christian lyrics, making for perhaps the weakest moment of the album. Following this is “History Repeats (Jungle Remix,)” a celebratory rendition built around a synth pulse. More mid range instrumentation adds definition, and the track flows with more traction than the original. Howard’s designedly sloppy vocals suspended the mix simulate the experience of getting swept up in the course of repeating histories. The new take is altogether a catchier, expedited reanimation. Finally, a reworking of “Run to Me” cleans up the dark, muddled original song. Laura Mvula sings the main vocal with sparse piano accompaniment, transforming the track into something closer to a conventional song. Howard’s vocals here are different from the deep voicings of the original. They enter the mix in excessive reverb, more gritty and dynamic than Mvula’s vocals, introducing some additional edge. Still, the overall result is far less tortured than the original work, lighter and freer in form and feel.
Brittany Howard’s star-studded remix album is ultimately not quite as colorful and eventful of a recording as one might expect from the roster of featured artists. Even the artists who lend vocals don’t reveal enough of their personalities to radically alter the songs. Laura Mvula might be the exception, but Little Dragon, Syd and Common are merely a tease with their scant contributions. Earthgang’s rework is a proper reimagining, as it essentially samples the original song in a new track, straying far from the source material. What the album succeeds in doing is exploring alternate realities in which songs from “Jaime” achieve their eccentric forms by other musical means. The number of remixes that effectively preserve the overall feel of their source material, while exploring dramatically different sounds, is what holds the album together, and gives it merit. In addition, the general template of crisp beats, funky basslines, and chaotic reverberating vocals gives a thematic uniformity to the album, framing the new record as a look back at the madness after things have fallen back into place. Simultaneously, it’s an elegant distillation, carving the unwieldy source material into light, pliable constructions for the future.
“Jaime (Reimagined)” releases July 23 on Apple Music.