For years now, Gregg Gillis has been trying to tell us something. In interviews, he’s repeatedly claimed that he’s not a mashup artist, and he continues to peddle t-shirts that contend, in bold-studded caps, that he’s not even a DJ. Instead, the laptop master of rock/pop/hip-hop sample alchemy has often tried to place himself in the tradition of Plunderphonics: a micro-movement that started in the 80s, when composer John Oswald published an essay advocating the unabashed theft of copyrighted sounds to make ostensibly new compositions. So while Gillis’ Girl Talk project is best known for drafting dream-team jam sessions between Destiny’s Child, Elton John, Dave Grohl, and Biggie — and daring to sell physical album-loads of them without bothering to ask anyone’s lawyer or estate — his biggest plea has always been not to call his music “mashups.”
Well, that’s exactly what’s been so great about Gillis: for a time, he was right. 2006’s Night Ripper — the very point at which people started buying Girl Talk tees and reading Gillis interviews — is a frequently brilliant, nigh-impossible feat of pop cultural bricolage, and a far greater work of art than most seem to have credited it. Most interesting is that his creative process in assembling Night Ripper was not much different from that of his two prior and very different records, especially 2002’s debut Secret Diary, perhaps one of the best comedy/noise albums of all time. (Few things can be funnier than hearing Jay-Z try to shout “JIGGA MOTHAFUCKA” while being cheese-grated through the theme to The Price Is Right.) Plunderphonics or not, this stuff was something far beyond the pale of a genre mostly associated with beatmatching a rock beat to a rap a cappella, and Gillis has inspired a long trail of failed imitators and wannabes to prove it.
The cracks began to show a bit, however, with 2008’s Feed the Animals. Christgau once wrote that an adoring audience can be a dangerous drug for the true artist, and indeed, Gillis began to make his studio work more like his live show: letting samples run for longer, often only using two elements at a time, and otherwise simplifying his music for yet dancier accessibility. But Animals could still boast moments to match some of those on its more adventurous predecessor, and it was a fine record in its own right. Gillis was merely making the transition from being a laptop auteur crafting party-jam art collages to being a fine DJ crafting the best damn mashups around.
Lamentably, All Day takes that minor regression and amplifies it exponentially. For the most part, he now sounds like any old DJ making predictable crap mash. The virtuosic sample-cramming and attention-deficit exhilaration of Night Ripper are all but gone, and even Feed the Animals’ control of more longform quotations gets murked by All Day’s dearth of decent ideas. Like previous Girl Talk records, it’s frontloaded with most of its best thoughts, and as a result the first two tracks offer up some really great moments — but the 58 minutes that follow struggle tremendously, at times badly enough to call to mind copycat hacks like E-603 and Super Mash Bros.
There’s no shortage of loudly uninspired moments (and a real shortage of any discernible attempt at functional transitions), but the very worst theme of All Day is its clueless manhandling of classic samples: the kinda stuff that deserves better and that Gillis once could have served better. There’s a comically botched “Creep” sample in “Jump on Stage” (out of tune as fuck), a vapid segment of “This Is the Remix” that is listenable only ’cause “I Want You Back” is just barely strong enough to survive pointless Lil’ Kimming, and the record sputters to a close with a completely unworthy use of one of the greatest songs by one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Somehow, moments sampling bands and artists no one cares about anymore — hello, Toadies — manage to offend just the same.
What’s particularly confusing about All Day is how thoroughly it betrays Gillis’ own recent description of it. In a great interview with Pitchfork, he promised something “more dynamic and expressing more patience than before”; but those “breather-room elements” are pretty much non-existent (unless he meant the many moments in which he sounds asleep at the wheel). Claims like “you won’t hear two 90s alternative rock songs back-to-back or two Nicki Minaj verses back-to-back” and “it has material that jumps around as far as possible in genre in style” ring particularly false, considering he samples four different Jay-Z songs in the first two tracks alone, and the record largely reprises his past albums’ stylistic constraints. Hell, it opens with Ludacris rapping over some classic rock just like Night Ripper does, and it ends with a rap vocal from a UGK song over some classic rock just like Feed the Animals does. Gillis even said, “I’m not trying to document a party on [All Day]… It’s something else,” but the only way I can reconcile that with this very party-centric record is to draw on Chris Weingarten’s great synopsis: “more message board than dancefloor.”
Frustrated fanboy headscratching aside, the point is simple: All Day is a misstep of the worst kind, wherein Gillis’ craft devolves from transformative to parasitic. It’s particularly surprising that this mess took two and a half years to make. Considering Gillis said “I just want to make a classic album” in that same recent interview, perhaps he should go back to his dayjob as a biomedical engineer and again make Girl Talk the hobby that birthed Night Ripper. He damn near had it that time.