First, a somewhat penitent confession: I have never understood the cachet dance-floor scholars give to Patrick Cowley’s remix of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” Even granting that the original track is incontestably the most revered disco song ever, and that hardcore aficionados cherish the 12” format above all else, Cowley’s discursive expansion of Giorgio Moroder’s masterpiece more or less double-underlines the song’s already spacey vibe, interjecting corny shooting-star effects and fattening up those undulating bass-note triplets, turning a song that sounds like the future into a 15-minute recap of yesterday’s sound. The lesson isn’t so much “don’t mess with perfection,” but rather “don’t bother trying to gild the lily of genius.” To uneven ends, the collection of newly commissioned remixes in the tribute compilation Love to Love You Donna dance around that notion. The success of each track depends less on the proximity the original songs had to greatness and more on each remixer’s willingness to radically rethink things.
No one teases the elephant in the room with more cheek than Moroder himself, who builds his rework of “Love to Love You Baby,” his first and arguably sparest smash hit with Summer, around the orgasmic moans that Summer claimed were just a humorous lark in the studio (but which she came to quickly rue) and the immortal octave-leaping bassline of “I Feel Love,” both of which come to a head with an isolated, guttural “Uhh!” that settles the entire slutty cocktail into a thrusting, dubby grindfest. Moroder’s efforts yield less a rework so much as a retrofit, but he alone merits a free pass given his obvious and likely indissoluble connection with the first draft. (It’s the same sort of noblesse oblige that reserves the album’s closing slot for a new Moroder-Summer composition that sounds like a leftover from Crayons, the just agreeable “La Dolce Vita.”)
Two other remixers hitch their saddles to the bucking pulsations of “I Feel Love,” and if neither of them fall off, only one of them manages to stage a sonic renovation. Afrojack’s offering is a clattering, overmodulated EDM makeover that takes no chances. One ought to be more offended at the clear line the mix attempts to draw between Moroder’s 1977 new horizons and today’s long string of club dead-ends, but if any song can withstand the insult, it’s this one. (The same can’t be said for “MacArthur Park,” always a more precarious composition in every form, and resoundingly defeated in Laidback Luke’s painful jock jam.) Far more adventurous is the Benga version of “I Feel Love,” which takes what was already a pretty minimalist tune and strips it to the bare bones, bringing Summer’s coos back and forth into the mix like the three sirens calling to the Flying Dutchman.
Other remixers adapt the same vocal-chopping strategy, perhaps unwittingly turning the late Summer’s performances into ghostly remnants of her former glory. Duke Dumont spins “Dim All the Lights” around the belted mantra “Dance your heart away,” the nagging high notes calling to mind the halcyon days of early vocal house. Jacques Greene can barely be bothered with words, instead snatching the descending “whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh” from “On the Radio” and sending it through seven levels of reverberation, as though scooping the notes from Pinhead’s puzzle box.
But as far as paying actual tribute to Summer’s (as opposed to Moroder’s) talent goes, it’s hardly a surprise to see mainly the old pros rising to the occasion with the most palpable chivalry—aside from relative newcomers Gigamesh, with an epic galactic shuffle on “Bad Girls,” and Chromeo & Oliver, whose thrilling, blue-ribbon electro-pop gives a booster shot to Summer’s savvy “Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger).” Stalwart New York club legend Frankie Knuckles rinses his deep-house “Hot Stuff” in magenta glitter and turns the entire club floor into his personal spin cycle in honor of Summer. And Masters at Work, consummate professionals with the sort of genuine musicianship that can sometimes seem a liability in dance music (litmus test: their earth-shattering but hardly reverent 1995 piano-house reboot of “I Feel Love”), bathe Summer’s climactic “Last Dance” in a warm, groovy nü-disco bounce that’s the welcome antithesis of the flashy labors that precede it, and—given the song’s inherent tone of bittersweet lament—one of the few moments that substantiate the project’s intent to pay Summer tribute.