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Remixes On ‘New’ Album Underscore Jackson’s Strengths

Michael Jackson “Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix” (Epic)

It figures. Just when we’d finally written him off as a musical irrelevance, banished forever to the nether regions of the gossip columns, Michael Jackson goes and upends our preconceptions by making a good album. Is the guy trying to make life difficult for music critics, or what?

Appallingly enough, Jackson pulls it off without even bothering to deliver a full album of new material. “Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix” (Epic 68000, which arrived in stores Tuesday) is basically a five-song EP, padded out to album length by eight remixes from his 1995 album “HIStory.” A testament to his creativity it ain’t.

But rather than remind us that Jackson has been relying on retreads a lot lately (his last all-new album was 1991’s “Dangerous”), the remix strategy ends up reinforcing Jackson’s reputation as a dance floor wizard. Working with an A-List cast of club talent - Frankie Knuckles, Todd Terry, David Morales, Tony Moran, and the Fugees, to name a few - Jackson has no trouble making the transition to disco diva.

If anything, the hyped-up beats and stripped-down arrangements underscore his strengths, spotlighting the grit and power of his voice while minimizing the excess of the original arrangements. As sappy as “You Are Not Alone” sounded in its original version, its lush harmonies and pretty melody seem perfectly appropriate when framed by Knuckles’ retro-disco remix, while the overstuffed “Stranger in Moscow” is not only leaner and meaner, but much catchier now that Terry has stripped the tune down to a house music cocktail of thumping drums and gospel-inflected piano.

Some of the remixes take control of the sound so completely that Jackson almost ends up sounding like a sideman on his own album. Not that this is a problem, mind you - the fact that most of what we hear on the remixed “2 Bad” comes courtesy of the Fugees goes a long way toward explaining why it’s the funkiest track Jackson has released in years. Heck, it hardly even matters that the Flyte Tyme remix of “Scream” finds Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis recycling the same Sly & the Family Stone sample that fueled Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation.” It works, and that’s enough.

In fact, the remixed portion of “Blood on the Dance Floor” works so well that some listeners will find themselves wishing Jackson hadn’t bothered with new material at all.

“Morphine,” for instance, is everything the remixes aren’t, a lumbering, overwrought exercise in attitude that makes almost no sense at all, while “Superfly Sister” finds Jackson decrying cheap sexuality in language that is at times downright creepy. Even the title tune is but a trifle, a half-hearted attempt to recapture the magic of Jackson’s “Off the Wall”-era hits. (Not surprisingly, the remixes included on the single are far superior to the album version.)

Still, if the music on “Blood on the Dance Floor” disappoints those looking for a fresh excuse to dis Jackson, the CD booklet provides ample evidence that our Jacko is still wacko. The obsession this time is with his own name, which appears so often in the credits you’d think he earned a royalty on each mention.

Oh, well. Somebody’s got to keep the guy’s name out there, right?