Every week in the leadup to Splendour, we’re looking at a brilliant album by one of the artists on the bill. This week, Myf Warhurst explores Version by Mark Ronson.
Mark Ronson’s second album, Version, was released in 2007 and is a collection of mostly UK alt-rock tunes re-imagined by guest artists in the style of ‘60s soul and rhythm’n’blues. It’s fair to say that when it came out, it didn’t receive an overly cracking response from critics. One Pitchfork reviewer said that while Ronson might be a good producer, this album was nothing more than a guest artist showcase and a greedy cash grab. Another suggested Ronson should have just done a collection of remixes instead.
Version was released amidst much mumbling from critics about the 'ongoing implosion of pop music', but in fact, this album could be considered Ronson’s masterstroke.
In hindsight, such criticisms seem harsh. Version is a straight-up Motown/Stax-inspired soul romper that could still fill dance floors today. Perhaps Ronson’s vision was too confusing for people unable to imagine that “important bands” like The Smiths and Radiohead could get a jaunty musical makeover, and survive.
Aside from the critical shoulder shrugs, the album did get the tick of approval from the public, particularly in the UK, spawning 3 number one singles. Ronson also walked away with Best Male Solo Artist at the Brit Awards that year and became the poster boy for knob twiddlers everywhere.
Prior to this, Ronson already had some pretty spectacular albums under his production belt, including Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and Lily Allen’s Alright, Still. But no-one could have predicted how successful his reproduction soul/funk sounds would become, nor how much he would dominate contemporary charts today – most recently with the chart-blistering ‘Uptown Funk’, which you, me and your Nan loved until we could take no more.
With Version, Ronson took the organic soul sounds he’d mastered (and clearly fallen for) on Winehouse’s Back to Black, then used familiar songs and singers to share these sounds with the universe. He is now synonymous with merging disparate musical worlds and orchestrating unexpected collaborations.
The album opens with the Daptone Horns (from the much revered Daptone Records crew who were, at the time, in the process of establishing themselves as a great contemporary soul label) with a chirpy instrumental version of Coldplay’s ‘God Put A Smile On Your Face’. By giving a soul makeover to Coldplay – a band often derided as soulless - Ronson had his tongue firmly in his cheek. It sets the tone for the rest of the album.
It is the big name performances that are the obvious highlights of this record. Lily Allen’s version of ‘Oh My God’ by Kaiser Chiefs gives the song a whole new presence with added funk keys and horns, and of course, The Zutons’ ‘Valerie’ reimagined as a jaunty Northern Soul stomper with Amy Winehouse is a stroke of genius.
Daniel Merriweather’s take on ‘Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before’ by The Smiths, re-composed with additional lyrics from The Supremes’ ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’, takes the original and miraculously mangles it in to a classic ‘60s r’n’b heartbreaker.
Radiohead’s ‘Just’, performed by American mid-indie band Phantom Planet (best known for The O.C.’s cheesy theme song) is a striking arrangement, reworked as a jaunty ditty with horns aplenty. Even the most affronted Radiohead fan couldn’t help but shake along to this one.
Admittedly there are a few tracks that don’t quite reach the same heights. Ol’ Dirty Bastard/Tiggers’ loping version of Britney’s ‘Toxic’ is one. Sadly, it’s not the execution but perhaps the song choice that’s the problem here: Britney’s version already had a hint of ‘60s sparkle and a twinkle of irony to it - which makes a soul conversion a tad redundant. Robbie Williams does The Charlatans’ ‘The Only One I Know’ in the style of a James Bond belter, which sounds a little thin despite the instrumentation pumping it up. However, there are more highlights than lowlights on this album.
Version was released amidst much mumbling from critics about the “ongoing implosion of pop music”, but in fact, this album could be considered Ronson’s masterstroke. It changed the musical landscape by bringing old soul and r’n’b sounds to a wider audience and perhaps helped spearhead the new soul revolution we are enjoying today.
Plus, it’s packed with good songs that the young folks like and old folk can still dance to at parties. And this makes everyone happy.
Mark Ronson plays Splendour In The Grass on Friday 24 July, and sideshows in Perth (22 July), Sydney (28 July), and Melbourne (29 July).
Hear Version in full from 9am this Sunday morning on Double J.