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Go4Gang Of Four
Return The Gift (V2)

Not quite a new album from the reformed Gang Of Four, but it seems this is as close as we're going to get. Return The Gift comprises re-recorded versions of 14 Gang Of Four classics-o-yesteryear. Essentially, the band have fashioned a studio album from the live set of early material they've been touting around the tour circuit. If you caught a gig or two along the way and you're looking for a souvenir of what the band brewed up on stage, this album will be bang up your alley. If you've already got the original recordings, however, the chances are you'll find this collection rates as a bit of an optional extra.

The Gang don't treat the songs drastically differently from the first go-around - on the contrary, they make very few changes to the original arrangements, and by and large play it all very straight. If there's any notable difference, it's in the overall feel. These songs were originally recorded by a young, loud and snotty Gang Of Four, with chips on all their shoulders, something to say, and everything to prove. But now the Gang Of Four are respected elder statesmen of alternative rock, acknowledged as a key influence on the current indie scene, and successfully reaping the kudos they built up in those early years. Oh, the band are still as loud and forceful as ever; that side of things hasn't changed. But for all its rampant noisemaking, Return The Gift sounds measured and mature compared to the early recordings. This album showcases the sound of experienced musicians cruising through their classics, rather than a collection of seething young punks, hungry and angry, with it all to play for. And you know what? I preferred the Gang Of Four in their snotty young punk incarnation.

'To Hell With Poverty' pitches us in on a wave of abrasive guitar. Turning everything up to eleven is still the Gang Of Four's forte. But the vocal, rather than being spat out with manic precision, is now much more of a standard slur-it-and-blur-it rock band caterwaul, and as a result the song doesn't hit quite as hard as it used to. The bass also appears to be less upfront and a touch more civilized than in the original, which is a sacreligious state of affairs in a Gang Of Four song. You simply don't do that with the Gang Of Four's bass sound!

'Why Theory?' allows the band to reprise their early gimmick of two counterpointed voices - which, now as then, works well, although in this case Hugo Burnham's spoken vocal, close to the mic and sounding bizarrely stage-cockney, makes it seem like he's channelling Ian Dury. Likewise on 'Anthrax', which features a lengthy intro of feedback and free-form guitar-strangling before the beat 'n' vocal mash-up kicks in. 'I Love A Man In Uniform', stripped of its female backing vocal, sounds like the lads having a kick-about in the rehearsal room, while 'We Live, As We Dream, Alone' is a rare instance of an old song being given a (slightly) new treatment - essentially, this version is a smoothly syncopated groove, with the chorus oddly muted and matter-of-fact. For my money, the best version of this song is the live take on the 100 Flowers Bloom box set of a few years back. That recording has all the pell-mell energy the band seem to have surgically removed for this run-through.

Elsewhere, there's good stuff. 'What We All Want' is almost rock 'n' roll, with its ever-circulating grit 'n' grime guitar riff, and Dave Allen, on the essential four strings, giving it some nifty Shriekback-style bass-ganks. 'At Home He's A Tourist' works well: no big changes, just a bit of extra polish on the production, some funky bottom-end twangs, and a fatter, fill-the-room guitar sound - all of which, much as I've always liked the starkly minimalist late-seventies racket of the original, comes over well.

If you manage to grab an early edition of this album, you'll find a bonus CD of remixes thrown in. This isn't a new idea: the Gang Of Four have been remixed by many and various people many times over the years, with varying results. The New York dance mix of 'Uniform', for example, gave the band a bona-fide 80s club hit, while I recall a distinctly less successful early-90s house mix of 'To Hell with Poverty' which replaced the power of the original with some frankly underwhelming house-piano riffs and weedy beats. Here, there's a similarly hit-or-miss selection. The Go Home Productions mix of 'Poverty' retains all the essential bile and anger, while replacing the entire rhythm section with a bass 'n' drums mash-up that sounds authentically punk-funk. Ladytron do well on 'Natural's Not In It', basically by throwing away everything except the vocal and writing a Ladytron number around it. For the rest, a certain caution is advisable. Some of the mixes work, some of them seem pointless exercises in will-this-do.

So, there's decent stuff here, and compared to most other music around these days, the Gang easily hold their own. Indeed, if this album had been a new release by any other band, I'd be mighily impressed with it. But this is the Gang Of Four, so standards are higher and scrutiny likewise sharper - and, of course, by choosing to re-record old songs, rather than write any new songs, the band have more or less invited direct, and, at times, uncomfortable comparisons between the old and the new. Ultimately, I wanted the Gang Of Four to do more than simply hold their own. I wanted them to go flaming into the future - and that, I'm afraid, doesn't quite happen here.

Interestingly, there is no information anywhere on the CD inlay to the effect that these are re-recorded vintage hits: it's as if the band are trying to pass off the album as new material. Well, maybe that'll hoodwink the indie kids who don't know much about the Gang Of Four, and are simply looking for the latest release by Franz Ferdinand's key influence. But those of us who are familiar with the band's history and songbook won't be so easily fooled - and I'd venture that the verdict of the old-skoolers will be in line with mine. This is a collection of slicked-up, adult-oriented versions of tunes which, in the end, worked better in their previous abrasively punkish incarnation.

Essential Links:

Gang Of Four: Website | Fansite

Myspace (presumably unofficial, since it seems to think the band are American)

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