The Gray Album
This album is a bastard child. This is the bad seed that has strayed from its noble parents, the mutt on the street. For those who don’t know, American Edit is a mashup. Its creators, going by the aliases Party Ben and Team9, tend to come off as a bit pompous, as noted in Ben’s interview with VH1.com on 20 December 2005: “I mean, Danger Mouse went on to produce the Gorilla’s Demon Days album, so maybe something like that will happen to me. If Damon Albarn calls, I’ll listen, for sure.” Yet, the story goes much deeper than that. Even if this is the first and last we hear of the duo, one point is inarguable: they’ve created a damn fine mash-up album.
It was February of 2004 that started the whole chain of events. Jay-Z released what turned out to be a so-so farewell album (The Black Album) in 2003, ending his career (though we all knew that to be a lie). Suddenly, the words Danger Mouse began creeping up everywhere. Already an established and very good rap producer, this is a guy who just for two weeks decided to mix up The Black Album with beats only from The Beatles’ White Album. Initially, he just made a few copies for friends, but before long, copies began appearing online. EMI issued a cease-and-desist and Danger Mouse fully obliged. Yet those who heard the resulting mashup, cleverly titled The Grey Album, wouldn’t stand for it. Soon, the infamous “Grey Tuesday” protest was held—dozens of sites posting this illegal album for download—a finger to the industry for denying creative expression to those who actually knew what they were doing. To put the icing on the cake, Entertainment Weekly suddenly decided to call the hybrid the Album of the Year.
What Entertainment Weekly missed was that just a few months prior to their Mouse-topping list, Green Day released the hands-down best album of their career and the flat-out best rock album since the dawn of the millennium: a Bush-railing rock opera called American Idiot. Haven’t heard it? You’re likely living in a cave. Debuting at #1 and lodged in the Top 10 for almost half a year, Green Day soon had the Midas touch—everything they released was gold, including the single best song they had ever composed, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”. They won Grammys, sold millions, and reclaimed the superstar throne that slipped from their grip almost a decade prior.
Flash-forward to Dean Gray. After receiving their own cease-and-desist letter and their very own Tuesday protest, American Edit is now in the public consciousness. The most famous track (and the one that started the whole project in the first place) is “Boulevard of Broken Songs”, a mashup of “Dreams” along with Oasis’ “Wonderwall”, Aerosmith’s “Dream On” (as filtered through Eminem’s “Sing for the Moment”) and Travis’ “Writing to Reach You”. The song is so famous that even Green Day’s eye-liner-stained mouthpiece Billie Joe Armstrong has heard it and liked it (much to Warner Music’s grating teeth). The full-length was inevitable, and after being doused in a pool of red tape and publicity, it’s here.
So … how is it?
This is a damn good mashup, but this isn’t The Grey Album. One of the key differences is the choice in samples in itself: Danger Mouse had only one source that he sampled from, and it worked brilliantly. Suddenly, the dreadful “Rocky Raccoon” had a newfound artistic context, serving a new purpose. “Helter Skelter” has always been menacing, but when coupled with “99 Problems”, it became fueled with hellfire all over again. Jay-Z and the Beatles—old working with new to create the future. That album wasn’t perfect, but nothing has topped it in the mashup space.
American Edit doesn’t achieve that same quality because it pulls samples from everywhere—there is no old and new bridge—there’s sampling for the sake of sampling. Idiot was a scathing criticism of our Commander in Chief, guised in lyrics taken so far past the guidelines of cliché that we all saw them as poetic and original. By mixing the message with other various (and at times, random) sources, things get diluted, and not as interesting. Speeches from W. come up at many different points on the album, but Idiot worked because the attack was a bit more subtle—the enemy wasn’t speaking right next to Billie’s mic. Nowhere does this problem become more apparent on the hands-down worst idea on the album: “St. Jimmy the Prankster”—a mash-up of Green Day’s best burst of guitar pop (“St. Jimmy”) and quite possibly the worst song that the Offspring has ever recorded (“Original Prankster”). Green Day loses its bite, and the Offspring loses … well, the Offspring just loses.
Elsewhere, there are ideas that work, but don’t jump out and explode at you. As cool as mixing “Novocaine” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” sounds, the song bends Queen to Green Day’s 4/4 pace instead of bending Green Day to Queen’s ever-shifting masterpiece. Reinventing the pop-punksters as the next U2 on the other hand (by mixing them with U2) on “The Bad Homecoming” is a much more successful venture. Yet for every successful part, there’s a moment like “Ashanti’s Homecoming”, where Green Day’s guitars are cut and pasted until their adrenaline has swelled up and they get placed as decoration to the vocals of Ashanti’s “Only U”, the original of which had a biting guitar hook. Again, we’re left wondering why Ashanti, especially this song, has anything to do with Idiot aside from the fact that Dean Gray was able to mash it up together.
Yet, there are moments when Party Ben comes through and blows you away. The best example of this is “Dr. Who on Holiday”—a song that goes totally meta, in which he samples a song that samples another song (in this case, the KLF [aka Timelords] with their Gary Glitter/Dr. Who-theme sampling “Doctorin’ the Tardis”—a #1 song that no one remembers). At the half-way point, the KLF gets taken out of the equation and the song jumps to the original Glitter stadium-rocker “Rock and Roll (Part 2),” giving the song a newfound heartbeat and recontextualizing the serious anthem versus the fun one, making a delirious cocktail that’s fun to slam. The opening “American Jesus” suite proves to be more hit than miss, but proves that no matter when you sample Johnny Cash, you can never go wrong.
The mashup closes on a surprisingly strong note, mainly because it features the album’s undeniable best moment: a simple two-song mashup. Dean Gray shoves the fantastic “Whatsername” against the Bangles’ “Manic Monday” to create “Whatsername (Susanna Hoffs)”. The mashup is perfect. It sounds almost as if the two songs were meant to be together. No one else could have pulled jigsaw pieces from two completely different puzzles only to find that they fit perfectly. The “dance mix” to the already-amazing “Boulevard of Broken Songs” proves to be even better than the original, amping up the tempo without sacrificing the mood at all. It actually sounds vaguely reminiscent of Eric Prydz’ Steve Winwood-swiping “Call on Me”. Never has being disillusioned make you want to shake your booty so much.
The bottom line is this: American Edit isn’t better than The Grey Album nor does it enhance American Idiot in a meaningful way. It does, however, prove something we’ve already known all along: pop music isn’t something to be worshipped, it’s something to be played around with, much like a kid with Legos—same pieces, different shapes. From Edit, we can at least gather this much: Dean Gray is going to be a very happy kid.