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Gang Of Four:: Return the Gift (Album Review)

The latest album from the original Go4 lineup is a nostalgic look at the group’s best songs, as re-worked and updated for 2005. It’s no secret that the band was somewhat displeased with the finished product of their classic, Entertainment!. Guitarist Andy Gill has mentioned, “The drums sounded wrong on that record. It didn’t reflect what we were like live.” In theory, this sounds awesome: agreat band with great material pushing themselves further so that their songs reach maximum potential. So why doesn’t it actually sound awesome?

The problem is simply that Gang of Four got Entertainment! right the first time, whether they like it or not. The staccato, tinny drums and angular guitar spurts give the album a timeless appeal, one that has not been duplicated since (try as Franz Ferdinand, et al., might). These elements were left on the cutting floor for Return the Gift, which opts for louder, denser instrumentations.

This can be observed most tragically in the opening notes of “Natural’s Not In It,” where the perfectly stripped guitar intro of the original has been fuzzed up ad infinitum for 2005. The actual notes may be the same length, but the distortion has been turned up and an echo effect has been added, transforming the dance punk anthem into something the Darkness might use to open an outer space rock opera. In their attempt to update this timeless song, Go4 have actually made it sound outdated.

The same smearing is evident on “Damaged Goods,” “Ether,” and the rest of the songs from Entertainment!, which have the furthest to fall. These songs aren’t bad – in fact they are still pretty good by today’s standards – but listening to them makes you want to hear the original version instead. Not much has been changed here, and the substitutions that have been made only serve to make the songs sound overblown where they were once understated.

There are some moments when the new material does add something interesting: “Why Theory?” from Solid Gold is still appropriately edgy and peculiar, the guitars on “What We All Want” gain from the album’s overall boost in volume. The narration from “Anthrax” is more audible on Return the Gift, and it is easier to hear what’s being talked about in the background: “This is an archeology exercise really/going back in time to figure out what these people were.” With its wisdom, it’s an appreciated side note to the motivations behind Return the Gift.

I should also mention that the album is being released in a few different formats: a single-disc version for U.S. release and a 2-disc set for the U.K., with disc 2 being remakes of the Return the Gift tracks by alliterative bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Hot Hot Heat. I haven’t heard these songs at all, but I expect that the remixes will be the real draw to the album. I’m really curious to hear what Tony Kanal does with “Ether”, because I’m sure it will substantially differ from Go4’s own remake. The crisp dollar bill that comes in the 2-disc packaging might further persuade you to plop down the cash for the import. Even after the disappointment of disc 1, I’ll probably pay to get the full experience myself, but unless you’re curious, single-disc version can safely be avoided. (Reviewed by Andy Brown)