Album Review :
The Letter Black - Hanging on by a Remix

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Artist: The Letter Black
Album:  Hanging on by a Remix
Label:  Tooth and Nail
Release Date: 05/22/12
Reviewer: Lee Brown

Track Listing:

  1. Away From Me (Pitch Black and Paranoid Mix)
  2. Moving On (Don’t Let the Door Hit You Mix)
  3. All I Want (Berlin After Dark Mix)
  4. My Disease (Dirty Lazer Mix)
  5. Better Luck Next Time (Guns Drawn Mix)
  6. Collapse (Smooth Angel Mix)
  7. Wounded (Too Much Sweat on a Strobe Light Mix)
  8. Fire With Fire (N.Y.C. Amyl Nitrate Mix)
  9. Perfect (Painful Mix)
  10. Dream On (Rapid Eye Movement Mix)
  11. Hanging on By a Thread (Cut the Cord Mix)
  12. Moving On (Mike D’s Knox-Vegas Mix)

Expectations can have a huge impact on how much a person is able to enjoy a piece of artistic product. For example, when I first heard “Hanging on By a Thread” (the song, not the album) by The Letter Black, I found an enjoyable piece of female-driven rock that worked in all the right ways. Between the hauntingly beautiful vocals and overall production that seemed to have that distinct Travis Wyrick stamp on it, my expectations rose significantly. However, having high expectations proved a detriment to my enjoyment of the full album once it was released. Despite a couple songs here and there that caught my attention, I found the overall album a bit too forgettable.

But, expectation cuts both ways. Because Hanging on by a Thread was such a letdown, I came to Hanging on By a Remix with extraordinarily low expectations. In this case, I walked away with a much better taste in my mouth than I expected…. especially for a remix album. The trick to this review, then, is to assess whether I have simply allowed the overcoming of low expectations to slant what comes next. For that, I’ll let you decide.

So, let’s tackle the elephant in the room down to the ground first. Remix albums, on the whole, are usually a bad idea. Fans of the original album, who have memorized every beat and vocal downturn, typically end up somewhere between dislike and loathe on remix tracks. The songs, in their mind, either put a black eye on something they considered perfect and beautiful or simply take too many liberties by mixing in genre material that is foreign to the band.

That said, I was pleasantly surprised by The Letter Black’s choices on this album. First of all, the genre hopping done (often including synth, hip hop beats, and guttural screams) on this album worked for the betterment of many of the songs. Where several of the songs on the original album are nothing but formulaic and did little to stretch the band’s considerable (but utterly unrealized) talent, almost every track on the remix album strives to do something different. The notable exceptions may be “Collapse (Smooth Angel Mix),” and “Perfect (Painful Mix).”

Secondly, Sarah Anthony’s vocals get tested against a variety of directions not delved into on the original album. I mentioned it above, but Sarah has an amazing voice. It was a shame, then, that Hanging on By A Thread did little more to showcase this than give her a few breathy moments set against generic rock. Remix, however, often showcases guttural screams (which I’m addicted to, by the way) mixed purposefully and beautifully un-delicately in to contrast the typical smoothness of Sarah’s voice. For goodness sake, the beginning of “My Disease (Dirty Lazer Mix)” almost sounds like Gollum is singing it while dreaming of stabbing Frodo (nerdy I know). Fans of Flyleaf’s EP days (or the “before they got soft” era) will find a new addiction in the scream and growls that get mixed in to a surprising degree throughout the album. And yes, I realize that this is not entirely new territory for the band, having mixed in some light screams in the first album, but it certainly is done bigger and better here.

Third and last, the variety of experimental elements is both unusually high (even for a remix album) and audaciously bold. For a band that was widely criticized for putting out a rather canned album, Hanging on by a Remix is drastically unafraid to test the waters. As mentioned above, the listener will find hip-hop elements, synths, party rock, dance (if not almost dub-step), screamo and much more.

Typically in reviews I do a little more song by song commentary. But, remix albums are different animals and therefore require a little different touch. Because each song is so different and many (though not all) are experimental in nature, each listener will have a different experience. And that’s one of the more beautiful elements of this album, to be honest. Since each track is bold, we’re given the freedom to love or hate each song by its own merits, where the source material was so similar that the audience was forced into a total take-it-or-leave-it dichotomy.

One track I will point out by itself, however, is “Dream On (Rapid Eye Movement Mix).” Though it is not uncommon for bands to relegate cover songs to this type of album, this song choice proves interesting none the less. In keeping with the tone of the album as a whole, I feel this is a rather bold choice. Covering any Aerosmith track brings with it an element of risk… but covering “Dream On” has to be done right or its simply suicide. Luckily, The Letter Black is able to pull it off. Not trying to ape Stephen Tyler’s more diverse vocals on this track was the right call and the almost ethereal dreamscape which the musical portion of the song automatically produces is certainly the right fit for Sarah’s voice. TLB captures the elemental beauty of the source track, adds the distinct “remix” elements required for this type of album, and makes wise choices with Sarah’s vocal range. They even wisely chose not to even attempt the high-pitched signature moment near the end of the track.

That said, I’m still waiting for someone to cover “The Safety Dance”!

Overall: Hanging on by a Remix  has all the strengths and weaknesses one would expect in a remix album. Fans of the source material will likely not prefer the remixed versions and those who were not fond of the source material will already be steering clear of this product. However, The Letter Black has made some bold choices on this album that make many of the tracks stand out. Unlike the source material, diversity and exploration is highly encouraged from track to track. Covering such a classic song as “Dream On” is a highlight of the risks taken and points to the biggest strength of this album: It gives those who wrote off The Letter Black as too formulaic and dull after their first album a reason to come back for their sophomore effort. Let’s just hope this album inspires bold moves when it comes time for that.

RIYL: Flyleaf, Fireflight, Gretchen

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