hese days, the phrase “cultural appropriation” has become a music-critic boogeyman comparable to the phrase “sexual harassment,” and I’m starting to wonder if we might not all be the poorer for it. It’s a tricky issue to argue since, at the end of the day, no decent person wants to see musicians’ artistic principles violated in the name of someone else’s quick buck, and more often than we’d like to admit, that’s exactly what starts happening the instant we figure it’s safe to stop looking for it. At the same time, however, we could sit around all day filling the comments section with worthwhile records which simply wouldn’t exist if not for an artist deciding not to care about propriety. Or, I suppose, we could just restrict the discussion to Mark Ronson’s Version, seeing as how it somehow manages to sum up the entire debate.
Version, you see, isn’t just an album of covers—it’s an album of covers of two decades’ worth of modern British pop touchstones like the Kaiser Chiefs’ “Oh My God” and Kasabian’s “L.S.F.” (along with the odd one-off like “Toxic” or “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before”) rendered in Ronson’s trademark white-British-dude-who-listens-to-black-folks’-music methodology. Given the breadth of Ronson’s aesthetic—he’s equally likely to draw from go-go or Northern Soul as he is from golden-age hip-hop—this may seem like an unreasonably simplistic reduction, but it’s certainly a tenable one if you’re just wondering whether or not you should give Version a shot. Put it this way: if you’re the type of person to take offense at the notion of an instrumental, er, version of Coldplay’s “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face” which swaps out the original song’s pasty Anglo anguish for the mother of all horn sections, then rest assured that Version is unequivocally not the record for you.
And that, friend, is completely your loss, because on its own merits, Version is one of the most vibrant, invigorating works of pop music to pass by my ears in a while. Say what you will about the ideological implications of Ronson’s attitude towards other people’s music, but cheap cash-ins rarely (if ever) exhibit the exuberant attention to detail omnipresent in Ronson’s work; when he’s on top of his game, his tracks sound like avalanches of impeccably arranged live percussion and evocatively giddy instrumentation, as if he’d heard Amerie’s “1 Thing” and made a beeline for his studio to pick up where it left off.
Like any compilation, Version has its share of undeniable clunkers, but its successes are so immediate and so animated that no reasonable listener could possibly begrudge Ronson for forcing them to rely on their track-skip button; his rework of Maximo Park’s “Apply Some Pressure” into a kissing cousin of Mitch Ryder’s “Devil With A Blue Dress On” actually manages to make the original seem tepid and detached by comparison, a feat which would be even more impressive if it weren’t the fourth-best song on the record, tops.
There’s no shortage of issues stemming from the respect Ronson shows both the source material and the framework in which he reinterprets it; I could probably go on for ten pages speculating wildly about the disconnect at work in the mind of an artist who seems hell-bent on reflecting the whining and pining at the heart of the Zutons’ “Valerie” without demonstrating a shred of compunction about turning it into a lost Freddie Scott backing track and handing it off to Amy Winehouse. But Version is simply too strong a collection of songs to be reduced to a series of talking points; these songs are just too much fun to listen to, too much fun to slip onto mixtapes, too much fun to bask in the reflected exhilaration of the artists participating in its creation. To paraphrase Chris Rock, if it weren’t for my daddy sexually harassing my mother, I wouldn’t be here today.
Reviewed by: James Cobo
Reviewed on: 2007-04-11