My rockcrit friends sometimes jokingly refer to me as a festival slut — at least, I hope it's jokingly — due to my propensity to drop all responsibilities at a moment's notice and head off to some multi-day techno gathering in Montreal or Barcelona or São Paulo. One benefit of all the hobnobbing and backstage hang-time is that you learn to see the artists involved as real people, not just brands. (Even the most "faceless" techno artists have to cozy up to the bar at some point.)
Occasionally I still get star-struck. Case in point: somehow winding up in Björk's dressing room backstage at Sónar two years ago. Cue a Wayne's World moment, down on knees: "I'm not worthy!" (For the record, I still didn't get to meet her. Even dressing rooms have their inner chambers and inner circles — for which I'm actually grateful, in a strange way; without the mystique, the Icelandic megastar might seem simply human, and who wants that? Even jaded critics need to believe in at least one possibly supernatural being.) But some artists, no matter how much they mingle with the masses, still manage to remain impossibly regal. It's a delicate balancing act, but the best of them pull it off in a way that doesn't feel like an act at all.
Berlin's Ellen Allien is one of these; at Barcelona's Sónar festival this past June, she swept through the crowd, draped in a long, flowing jersey dress that seemed almost medieval, but without all the ren-faire connotations — it was also as sleek and high-tech as her music. Onstage, playing before some 10,000 ravers, she was a picture of control (literally — the only way to see her was to look at her projected image on dozens of enormous screens as she cued records and twisted EQ knobs with a jeweler's precision). But roaming around Sónar's grounds the day before, she'd ventured into the fray with grace, curtseying, kissing cheeks, and assuming incredible poses, arms twined over her head, for goggle-eyed kids with cameras.
If her new album Thrills (not currently available on eMusic) showcases her ice-queen side, her collection of remixes for other artists, appropriately titled Remix Collection, demonstrates her generosity. Where some producers approach the remix with a sense approaching something like disdain, wiping out any trace of the original version, Allien's remixes are more empathic. They retain the essential spirit of the principal track, but in the end they're undeniably hers.
Listen, for example, to Golden Boy with Miss Kittin's "Rippin Kittin," and then check out Allien's remix of the same. Golden Boy and Kittin's song — itself a very liberal cover of the Misfits '"Mommy, Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight?" (which, for thoroughness 'sake, you can hear covered by Fishsticks on eMusic) — hears Kittin singing the eponymous lyrics in an alienated voice over cool, almost mournful keyboards that hang uneasily between Detroit techno and Electroclash. Allien's rework is tougher, but it's hard at first to say how: the beat is more refined, the moon-sliver keys a half-shade brighter. More than anything, it's the pulse that stands out — schooled for a decade on Berlin's no-nonsense dance floors, Allien knows how to make even the throttle up the throb of even the subtlest hum.
(Miss Kittin, interestingly, pulls off a similar balancing act to Allien's; her albums may be slathered with sneers, but onstage and in the crowd she's all smiles. Is it possible that women artists are expected to please their fans in ways that male musicians aren't? In any case, it's no surprise that Kittin can juggle personas this way — her right arm boasts a tattoo that reads "Inhale" in gothic script; the other arms says "Exhale.")
The other cuts on Remix Collection are the only versions of those songs available on eMusic, but even without the compare-and-contrast, you can hear how much Allien leaves untouched simply by the varied styles the album accommodates. The San Francisco sexpot Gold Chains 'sultry growl remains front and center in "Let's Get It On," even as Allien rejiggers his booty beats to thrust unpredictably. You don't need to know that Barbara Morgenstern's "Aus Heiterem Himmel" came into the world as a delicate electro-acoustic ballad; even as Allien sculpts it into pounds of peak-hour muscle, you can still hear the shy girl whispering from within the iron man suit.
Maybe it's her facility with these sorts of contradictions that makes Allien's music seem so compellingly human; maybe it's simply their raw intimacy, as invisible voices press against your ear and buzzing tones flicker with fickle currents, leaving the hairs on your neck bristling as if from a static charge. Whatever the source track's sound, what's so impressive about Remix Collection is that Allien transcends the status of hired gun or hired help — because a remix is always more a commission than a proper collaboration — to initiate a three-way conversation that draws together the songwriter, herself, and you. Aphex Twin may have titled his own remix collection 26 Mixes for Cash, but Allien could never pull off something so cynical. When she assumes the decks or the mixing desk, all your suspicions simply fall away. The diva is dead; long live the queen of techno.