CD Review of Version by Mark Ronson

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Released: 2007
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Matt Groening used to have this running gag in his “Life in Hell” comic strip called “Surefire Conversation Stoppers.” Usually it would consist of people saying things like, “I literally have bees buzzing around inside my head,” but would occasionally cover things that people might actually say. If he’s taking suggestions for the next installment, we have one for him.

“I’m a DJ.”

Being a DJ means absolutely nothing anymore, not when every other band has a DJ. Oh, and that dirtbag club rat in the floppy hat that says he’s a DJ? The closest he’s been to a set of decks was when he bought ten hits of e for Paul Oakenfold and once carried Fatboy Slim’s records. Club culture is as big as ever, but that has only diluted the talent pool. If everyone is a DJ, it only means that most everyone is a mediocre DJ. “Listen to my mash-up of Miles Davis and Metal Machine Music!” I’d rather be nibbled to death by ducks.

Every once in a while, though, someone comes along that elevates the job title to something just short of godliness. Mark Ronson is one of those men. His latest album, Version, has a concept that screams “Don’t even freaking think about it” – he recruits a stable of singers to cover modern rock songs in a Motown/Stax records vibe – yet the results are, in a word, stunning. Still not sold yet? Then consider this: Ronson was intimately involved with the latest releases by Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen. Which were awesome. Thought that might get your attention.

Ronson doesn’t waste any time tackling the giants, opening the album with a surf-happy instrumental version of Coldplay’s “God Put a Smile upon Your Face,” featuring the Daptone Horns doing the “vocal.” Brush off your Austin Powers dance, because you’ll be doing it before song’s end. Winehouse and Allen also make appearances here, the former doing an impeccable version of the Zutons’ “Valerie” while Allen tackles the Kaiser Chiefs’ “Oh My God.” In between is a version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” that has to be heard to be believed. It even features a rap by Dirt McGirt, a.k.a. Ol’ Dirty Bastard, from way beyond the grave. The phrase “Ooh, nigga, I’m burnin’ up” never sounded so sweet, or so sad.

The only other Yank to be reinterpreted by Ronson is Ryan Adams, whose song “Amy” is given an irresistible galloping drum track and smoove vocal from the woefully underrated Kenna. Phantom Planet, meanwhile, pitches in on a version of Radiohead’s “Just” that has more soul than the entire Radiohead catalog could ever hope to possess. The album’s showstopper, though, is Daniel Merriweather’s “Stop Me,” as in the Smiths’ “Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before.” With a demanding but simple drum track and a gorgeous string arrangement (not to mention a little love for the Supremes at song’s end), the song will surely find a home in any club that plays Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy” on a regular basis.

It is with regret that we must then take a star away from Version for the cover that, on paper, seemed bulletproof, but didn’t remotely live up to this writer’s expectations: Robbie Williams covering the Charlatans’ “The Only One I Know.” Come on, people, how do you possibly screw that up? By sucking the energy out of the arrangement and asking Robbie to deliver the most straight-forward vocal ever, it appears.

So yeah, Mark Ronson is a DJ. But don’t walk away from the conversation quite yet. He has a lot more to offer than that last DJ you met, the one that hacked into your MySpace account and stole your identity. After all, how often does someone make both a great covers album and a great DJ record? Exactly.

~David Medsker