Wednesday, August 8, 2007

I think I have heard this one before...

I am intrigued by Mark Ronson's recent album of covers, Version, which seems like it is going to pass largely unremarked here in the States. It points out the occasional but ongoing disparity in taste between the UK and the USA when it comes to pop music. (Compare our pop charts if you don't believe me.) Despite the fact that we have traded musics enthusiastically and successfully for decades, there are nonetheless occasional misfires in one place or the other, and this seems to be one of them. Version has enjoyed critical raves and two top ten hits in the UK thus far. Here it has received lukewarm to cool reviews, and I think we'd all be shocked if it comes anywhere near the charts. Go figure.

In this instance, I can make a case of sorts that most of the original songs on Version are by UK artists, and most of the guest vocalists doing the covers are also UK artists, and the whole lot of them has enjoyed more success and visibility there. But that only goes part way; Mark Ronson produced much of Amy Winehouse's recent album Back To Black, and both the album and single 'Rehab' made it into our top ten.

I'm not going to try to change anyone's mind, because in truth I can't really recommend the album. It's incredibly uneven, with some tracks that are almost unbearable. Britney Spears's 'Toxic' was a flimsy song to start with, and this cover sags and lumbers. And everything about the cover of Charlatans' 'The only one I know' just makes me ache for the original.

But there are some real gems here, too. The cover of Kaiser Chiefs' 'Oh my god' with Lily Allen is great. The cover of Jam's 'Pretty green' is even better, so assured that it can pass as a lost new wave track itself, rather than a cover of a lost new wave track. And the cover of Zutons' 'Valerie' with Amy Winehouse is fantastic - it completely elevates the original with polish and insouciance.

But my highest praise goes to the cover of Smiths' 'Stop me if you think you've heard this one before' with relative unknown Daniel Merriweather. It's no revelation that Morrissey tapped into a rather soulful vein at times, but this version makes a solid case that Smokey Robinson in his heyday could have had a good run with this song. To really make the point, Ronson and Merriweather segue into Supremes' 'You keep me hangin' on' as an outro, which also shades the Smiths song with new vulnerability.

I can't say much about Mark Ronson's consistency, but when he is at his best, it's a treat. Revisit Nikka Costa's 'Everybody got their something' for another excellent example. It's ironic that Ronson is dipping freely into music styles that we invented and perfected, and the results are finding a better reception elsewhere.

Mark Ronson official website