Mark Ronson, Version
In the midst of illustrious hip-hop producers with elaborate, hard-hitting beats, there’s Mark Ronson, often only accompanied by his guitar or his turntables, instead of hype men and machine-made beats. And with his second album, a compilation of covers aptly named Version, there’s no mistaking him for Timbaland or Kanye.
Ronson, who has worked with artists ranging from Ghostface Killah to Lily Allen, was until recently known only as a hip-hop DJ, scratching at parties thrown by the hip-hop elite (think Diddy and friends), and even producing a collection of songs for his first album, Here Comes the Fuzz. But where as Fuzz features vocal collaborations from rappers like Mos Def and Freeway, Version features the bluesy vocals of Amy Winehouse and the rock-pop influence of Phantom Planet. Mark Ronson’s transition from hip-hop to other genres is mostly effortless, obvious in the way he recreates each song for it’s featured artist: Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” (originally performed by The Zutons) is soul and blues; Lily Allen’s “Oh My God” (Kaiser Chiefs) is Brit pop; and Daniel Merriweather’s “Stop Me,” (The Smiths) is a little R&B.
All of the tracks are complimented by Ronson’s trademark — blaring horns sounding over breaks and under choruses, which Ronson somehow makes fit. No song on Version completely disappoints, and the standouts are surprisingly refreshing. The mediocre bits are mediocre at the fault of the vocalists — Ronson’s work, on the other hand, never fails.
Version comes as a refreshing take on modern music among the stale reused and remanufactured beats that are now scattered about on the music scene. His curiosity and venture away from hip-hop music has done Ronson some good; he seamlessly blends the old with the new, modernizing songs from the last 20 years, many of which come from the last decade.
Remaking songs has probably never sounded so amazing.
Iron and Wine, The Shepherd’s Dog
Samuel Beam, also known as Iron and Wine, has continued the trend among indie musicians of increasing instrumentation and production with every passing album — see Elliott Smith and The Flaming Lips for more examples of this progression. To be sure, this path is never completely linear, though it always seems to go from point A to point B, sometimes regressing a little toward the end. Iron and Wine’s first album, 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle, was a collection of lo-fi tracks that Beam recorded in his bedroom, rarely featuring more than a guitar, banjo, and the haunting voice of a disturbed Southerner. He sent a demo tape to a record label, and they released it as a full-length album. Iron and Wine’s second record, Our Endless Numbered Days (2004), though professionally recorded, stayed true to the stark and vulnerable sound that Beam had established as his overall style. Perhaps you can see where this is going. After recording an EP in 2005 with the notoriously eclectic and experimental group Calexico, Iron and Wine released The Shepherd’s Dog, revealing Beam’s desire to move on to bigger things.
Beam would have trouble squeezing the vast number of instruments heard on The Shepherd’s Dog into his old bedroom. Throughout the album, superfluous and unconventional noises keep popping up unexpectedly: Hammond organs, vibraphones, backward tracks, harmonicas, sitars, etc. At other times, these sounds also peek their heads amid a flurry of layered, distorted guitar tracks and intrusive percussion beats. But Beam’s decision to include such variegated instrumentation stems more from curiosity than ostentation: He’s more like the guy at a party who just wants to try all of the appetizers than the chef who shows off all he’s created. Sometimes Beam’s the guy eating the always-delicious mini hot dogs; other times he’s finishing up an unappetizing kebab and trying to figure out where he will set down the leftover skewer.
Yet, as with all pop music, what really matters is the core of the songs themselves. And on The Shepherd’s Dog, we have a wide range in terms of actual song quality. In the glistening guitar picking that opens “Carousel,” the notes feel like tiny droplets of rain dripping down from the sky and melting into each other, an effect that warms and satiates. This song is gorgeous, an instant classic. Then you have songs like “Flightless Bird, American Mouth,” the album’s final track. If you can’t infer from the title how nauseating this song is, maybe this will capture its atrociousness: Beginning with a trite and predictable melody, “Flightless Bird” has lines like “fat house cat,” “I cut my long baby hair,” and “Blood of Christ mountain stream” — what could possibly even be the subject of this song? — all of which Beam sings with a sense of incomparable eyes-closed, slow head-nodding smugness. And again, in terms of quality, there are plenty of tracks in between these two extremes.
With The Shepherd’s Dog, Iron and Wine has chosen to dance across the spectrum of pop music. If this dance doesn’t always look so good, so be it.