You’d have been forgiven for overlooking Jamie Smith’s role in The XX when their album initially dropped in 2009 – much of their record’s immediate appeal was based on the interplay between the vocals of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. However – and without wishing to split the group in two, it was after all very much a group effort – much of that record’s hushed intimacy and subtle atmospherics can be attributed to Smith’s instrumental and production work.
While his chosen moniker suggests that he’s unwilling to distinguish himself too much from his bandmates at the moment, Jamie XX has been making something of an impression on his own terms over the last year or so. ‘Far Nearer’, an intriguing, steel drum-soaked solo track, saw the light of day on XFM late last year, while his remixes of his band’s own tracks, as well as those for Jack Penate, Glasser and particularly Adele, have cemented his up-and-coming reputation. There are elements of wobble, pitch-shifted vocals and reconstituted samples in all of them that place him in his own terms as a product of, very broadly speaking, the South London dubstep scene.
We’re New Here, then, is Jamie XX meeting Gil Scott Heron (supposedly at the suggestion of XL records boss Richard Russell) – it’s a remix album where Smith brings Heron’s surprising, worn and hard-earned comeback record from last year, I’m New Here, into his own world. They sound like an unlikely, if intriguing, match on paper, divided by an ocean and several generations. It’s worth remembering however that Heron himself is no stranger himself to re-appropriating the work of others – ‘I’m New Here’ is of course taken from Bill Callahan’s final album as Smog, A River Ain’t Too Much To Love – and the structure and meditative tone of Heron’s loose compositions lend themselves particularly well to Smith’s techniques and approaches.
Taken as a whole, We’re New Here is a well-paced, varied collection of songs that echoes the rising peaks, interludes and eclecticism of a DJ set – the melting pot of dubstep, hiphop, trance and r’n’b on offer here is unsurprising in that sense. As a result, tracks like the ominous, lurching ‘Running’ – built on dubstep rhythms and processed vocals with Heron’s monologue (“You’re going to see me run soon/And because you’re going to know why I’m running then/You’ll know then/Because I’m not going to tell you now”) weaving in and out – fall into the brighter, lilting, Mount Kimbie-esque ‘My Cloud’. Somehow the contrast works.
Elsewhere, you can sometimes play spot-the-sample, which gives both an interesting insight into what Jamie XX has chosen to use alongside Heron’s music while also, in their wide and disparate nature, really providing no insight at all. Gloria Gaynor’s ‘Cassanova Brown’ emerges at one point, as does Rui Da Silva’s almost forgotten ‘Touch Me’ on ‘Ur Soul And Mine’. If anything, their presence hints at Smith’s wide influences and crate-digging capabilities, and suggests he has a broad, anything-goes attitude to sources and genres just like contemporaries such as Hype Williams and James Blake.
We’re New Here never feels like eclecticism for eclecticism’s sake however – Heron’s now increasingly husky voice is contrasted poignantly with more youthful recordings from the ‘70s, and in many ways Jamie XX’s reimagining of Heron’s most recent record maintains his melancholic, determined tone. Remixes can sometimes bring out completely new elements in songs – can turn a tearjerker into a dancefloor filler for instance – but on other occasions they merely serve to connect with the music’s original message and purpose, re-emphasising it in a way. In many ways, Smith’s interventions here seem to have an element of empathy with what Heron has been through and is trying to say and come to terms with, but, at the same time, he brings his own energies and concerns, and the two seemingly unconnected figures meet in the middle on hitherto unconsidered mutual territory.
This is most evident on the record’s last, strongest stretch. ‘NY Is Killing Me’ drags Heron’s ruminations on alienation in the Big Apple to a London warehouse, with his gruff “Lord have mercy, mercy on me” becoming even more paranoid and ominous before being pitch-shifted way up into the heights. Meanwhile, ‘I’ll Take Care Of You’ completely reforms another of Heron’s I’m New Here tracks, which was itself a mournful cover of a song by Brook Benton. Euphoric piano chords and beats, alongside an atmospheric, reverbed guitar line that will be familiar to XX fans, turn Heron’s bittersweet musings into a content, tired, end of the night track. It’s a particularly fitting closer and perfectly encapsulates We’re New Here’s sense of possibility – that the past and present can always be sonically and emotionally linked, in ways you might not have even considered.