Review Summary: Ronson strips pop tracks of their rock instruments and rebuilds them brilliantly with hip hop beats and upbeat Motown arrangements
What’s this? He’s covered Radiohead and actually improved
upon the original? It’s just not done!
London-born DJ Mark Ronson’s take on ‘Just,’ the classic cut from 1995’s The Bends
, recasts the sludgy, introverted original as an abrasive party track, enlisting the vocal talents of Phantom Planet frontman Alex Greenwald, one of a dozen or so guest singers on his new album Version
. Beneath a bed of break beats, hand claps and a rigid Stax-like horn section, Greenwald does his best Matt Bellamy impression in what has got to be (unintentionally?) one of the best musical in-jokes I’ve heard in years. Greenwald’s double-tracked vocal weaves in and out of itself and the Meters-like funky guitar parts while the arrangement, though rooted in soul and early hip hop, captures the Radiohead ethos perfectly, reorganising and renewing itself constantly with the addition of new melodic and instrumental ideas.
Whether or not it’s better than the original is really irrelevant (and who cares, honestly) but it’s a different take on what many consider a sacred track- or at least one that shouldn’t be sullied by that awful hip hop stuff- so it was no surprise when it was the
standout track on the otherwise unremarkable tribute CD Exit Music: Songs with Radio Heads
. More importantly, it was approved by the authors themselves and gave Ronson the impetus to do more cover tracks. Over the next year, he compiled ten additional indie rock and pop tracks, some contemporary and some a little older, and gave them the same treatment, stripping them of their standard rock instruments and rebuilding them with hip hop beats and upbeat brassy arrangements that hark back to the golden days of Motown, Stax and Muscle Shoals.
As the man behind the boards on Lily Allen’s Alright, Still
and the better half of Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black
, Ronson’s pedigree as a world-class pop producer is already assured; he’s the man responsible for the “mockney” allegations that have dogged Allen recently, encouraging her to make her accent “more London”; he worked with Robbie Williams on his best track in a decade, the floor-filler ‘Lovelight,’ and his clever production on Back To Black
finally gave Winehouse a musical backing on parity with her talent as a singer and the balls biology won’t let her have. His style is achingly simply; there’s no complicated beats (that’s not his angle) or busy arrangements, he relies on the proven principle that tight and clever arrangements bring out what’s most important- the melody. Versions
is his best example of this to date.
If some quarters expressed outrage at Ronson’s coverage of ‘Just,’ that can safely be multiplied for ‘Stop Me’s reception. A cover of one of the best songs ever, The Smiths’ classic ‘Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before,’ with a bit of The Supremes’ ‘You Just Keep Me Hanging On’ tacked to the end, the track features soul singer (and Ronson's protégé) Daniel Merriweather. Like ‘Just,’ it’s lyrically dark, but the almost sterile mix of the original is bumped for a playful, funk-infused string arrangement that’s as much a showcase for the rookie singer as it is Ronson’s vehicle.
A Disney-type sweeping orchestral score underpins Amy Winehouse’s jazzy stab at The Zutons’ dirty blues number ‘Valerie.’ Lily Allen affirms her goddess status by correcting everything that was wrong with the Kaiser Chiefs’ ‘Oh My God,’ introducing much need melodic variation to the sledgehammer repetitive chorus- subtlety, gosh, what a concept! Maximo Park’s Paul Smith lends vocals to a cover of his own 2005 hit ‘Apply Some Pressure,’ an aggressive horn-driven arrangement that’s just as urgent as the original and musically more risky, and Robbie Williams proves just how effective a vocalist he can be on the Charlatans’ baggy classic ‘The Only One I Know,’ recorded back in the early ‘90s when they were good.
Now, I’ve always suspected that Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ would sound immeasurably better with Ol’ Dirty Bastard shouting “oooh nigga I’m burning up!”
over the top, but it’s taken an artist of Mark Ronson’s vision to see it into reality. Tiggers’ clipped singing style lends a unique eerie quality to the verse, supplemented by the eastern-tinged guitar melody, but the same technique stifles the chorus melody and makes for a slightly uneasy listen. The Beatles-y take on Ryan Adams’ Neil Young-influenced ‘Amy’ is also problematic, with layers of Lennon-esque vocals coming on way too thick, while the drum-and-bass cover of The Jam’s ‘Pretty Green’ is a little too busy for its own good. And while much is done to augment Tom Meighan’s vocals on Kasabian’s ‘LSF,’ and the guitarist must be given credit for trying to work the Grange Hill theme in towards the end, the arrangement doesn’t gel particularly well. Nonetheless, all of these tracks are listenable and easy to digest- some are just notably better than others.
will primarily be marketed to the UK audience, as a number of the tracks have received little attention outside of these isles, the collection doesn’t require any prior knowledge of the source material- it only heightens the enjoyment.