Renegades is a sort of Cliffs Notes to Rage Against the Machine, insofar as the 12 cover versions that make up the album map out the broad array of artists who have inspired the sound, as well as the political vision, of the group. As anyone familiar with RATM might expect, the material featured on Renegades reveals the band’s influences to be diverse in terms of historical origin and genre, ranging from “protest” music, classic rock, and Detroit proto-punk of the ‘60s and ‘70s to D.C. hardcore, old-school hip-hop, and gangsta rap of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
While the proceedings get off to a flying start with a heavy, funked-up rendition of Eric B. & Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend” and an explosive take on “Pistol Grip Pump” by Volume 10, the most compelling of the hip-hop/rap numbers is the incendiary treatment of Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man”. These might not be RATM’s own songs, but they offer textbook examples of the band’s sonic equation at its most potent—Morello’s metallic riffs, de la Rocha’s urgent, seething vocal delivery, and the mighty rhythm section all coalescing to make the tracks sound like RATM anthems. (An equally impressive, albeit unlisted, live version of “How I Could Just Kill a Man” featuring Cypress Hill members B-Real and Sen Dog appears at the end of the limited-edition version of the CD.)
Two other standout cuts on Renegades are Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and Minor Threat’s “In My Eyes”. Whereas the first of these is transformed from a sparse, largely acoustic ballad into a menacing, atmospheric mini-epic, the second is played more-or-less straight, showcasing RATM in a stripped-down, back-to-basics mode, driven by the rapid-fire drumming of Brad Wilk.
That said, there’s something distasteful about RATM covering the work of Minor Threat/Ian MacKaye here. MacKaye has convincingly negotiated an identity as a rock musician without compromising his politics (his current band Fugazi have stuck with an independent label and only charge about $5 for concert tickets and $10 for CDs, for example). By contrast, Morello, de la Rocha and co. have long thrived among the very corporate forces of the evil empire against which they rage, without ever sufficiently explaining the intricacies of that contradiction to their fans. The inclusion of “In My Eyes” is all the more unseemly if we are to believe those who have suggested that the rush-release of Renegades on the heels of Zack de la Rocha’s departure from RATM was simply an exercise in cashing in.
Politics aside (for the time being at least), Renegades is a hit-and-miss affair—despite the presence of some top-drawer covers. While some of the versions emphasize the band’s strengths, others underscore the weaknesses in RATM’s own material, highlighting its limited, formulaic nature. This is evident above all in the cases where the original songs are rearranged and translated into RATM’s sound. Many of them are simplified to fit Rage’s tried and tested model: the head-nod inducing riff, the building tension, the line chanted over-and-over followed by the sonic explosion. This is true, for instance, of the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man”, which—along with Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm”—is emptied of the qualities that formerly made it so memorable. Whatever may be left of the originals here is ultimately squashed and flattened out under the weight of RATM’s bombast.
Sometimes the band fares little better even when it sticks close to the original arrangements, as “Down On the Street” (the Stooges) and “Kick Out the Jams” (the MC5) show. RATM’s renditions are unimaginative, coming across as half-hearted rehearsal diversions or sound-check fodder. “Kick Out the Jams” is the album’s nadir. Its bass-heavy groove notwithstanding, Zack and the boys don’t sound as if they could even kick their way out of a wet paper bag. The band appears to have recorded it standing chest deep in molasses and it lacks the drive and passion that are basic requirements for a version of such a song. A vastly superior live recording of the track at the end of the limited-edition CD finds RATM getting it right—it would have made more sense to have included that rendition in place of its stodgy studio counterpart.
Although the flawed attempt at “Kick Out the Jams” is mildly amusing, Renegades accentuates the complete absence of humor with which RATM has always approached its music. For such a politically oriented band, it seems odd that RATM has never recognized the tactical value of humor as a highly effective weapon. This lack becomes painfully obvious on the rather serious cover of Devo’s “Beautiful World”. Shorn of its quirky, ludic feel, it becomes a slight, earnest ballad on which Zack actually sings.
Save a handful of tracks, the bulk of the material on Renegades maps out familiar RATM territory that’s largely about exaggerated expressions of masculinity, kicking varieties of literal and metaphorical ass, and generally railing against authority (“The Man”) in its various institutional and ideological incarnations. The covers selected here are symptomatic of the oversights of RATM’s own music. While the band has of course aligned itself with numerous organizations that focus on women’s rights and gay rights, such issues receive scant attention in its lyrics (except in occasional songs like “Revolver” from Evil Empire and “Maria” from The Battle of Los Angeles, where women are primarily victims). In this sense, Zack de la Rocha’s writing recalls the exclusive politics of an earlier generation of Chicano artists working under the influence of the cultural nationalist ideology in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Faulting RATM for imperfect politics may be holding the group to a very high standard. However, everything in RATM’s self-presentation—including its selection of cover material—invites just that. Any band that features a recommended-reading list on its album sleeves and its Web site and that encourages listeners to think critically is asking for such a response. Unfortunately, if listeners turn their critical eye on the band itself, the moral high ground on which Rage Against the Machine claims to stand may begin to seem somewhat shaky.