If Ronson is going to pander to an audience, he may as well be straightforward about it.
"I had worked with ODB before he died. We had done a couple of tracks together and on one of them the verse got left off. It was just a weird, fateful thing that he was saying these lines in the song. It just kind of worked."
-- Mark Ronson
Oh, give me a break.
On Mark Ronson's latest album, the imaginatively-titled Version, there is a cover of "Toxic", Britney Spears' brilliant little hit from a couple years ago. Singing the song is a faceless R&B fella who calls himself Tiggers, but he's not the selling point here. "Toxic" is attracting attention for the inclusion of a couple of guest verses from the one, the only Dirt McGirt, a.k.a. Ol' Dirty Bastard. The quote from Ronson above would seem to indicate that the Bastard's lines were lifted from a long-lost tape somewhere, destined to arrive on a Britney Spears cover; the problem being, of course, that they weren't. Both verses are from "Lift Ya' Skirt" (produced by Ronson), the opening track from Ol' Dirty Bastard's two-year-old still-unreleased (aside from one day on iTunes) 2005 album A Son Unique.
The more likely scenario? Ronson probably realized how directionless and pointless "Toxic" sounds without the sonic whizbang production of Britney's version, and decided to add a little bit of ODB that 99% of his audience hadn't yet heard for the sake of extra edge and hip-hop cred. Not only is it a move that carries with it a vague sense of dishonesty, but it also smacks of exploitation.
And somehow, it fits right in on Version.
The point of Version is basically to take modern-day hits by white boys with guitars and turn them into Motown hits of the '60s and '70s. It's an approach confirmed by Ronson's melding of The Smiths' "Stop Me if You've Heard This One Before" with The Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On", the summation of which forms the unfortunately titled "Stop Me Medley". Even when allowing an actual song from the Motown era into one of his covers, though, Ronson can't help but get something wrong; a song that should be quite humorous and even a little bit subversive is played utterly straight and serious, what with its overly earnest vocal from Aussie superstar-in-waiting Daniel Merriweather and its building sense of drama via strings.
Aside from that song, where those strings get the best of him, it's as if someone forgot to tell Ronson that adding big, obtrusive, eighth-note-playing horns into a song doesn't make it Motown. There's a feel, a soul to the biggest Motown hits that all the horns in the world won't be able to recreate. When Ronson borrows the Daptone Horns to do an instrumental take on "God Put a Smile On Your Face", he doesn't get soul, he gets self-parody. When he recruits Robbie Williams to take on The Charlatans' "The Only One I Know", he forgets that Williams' forté is charisma and self-aggrandizement, not middling and monotone. There are enough darts thrown at this board to manage a couple of bullseyes -- Lily Allen's take on Kaiser Chiefs' "Oh My God" is confident and ear-catching, and gosh, that Amy Winehouse has a voice on her -- but if anything, Version is proof that you can't just slap a bunch of horns and old-time R&B beats on rock songs and turn them into soul songs. It's pandering, and oddly, it's doing so to a demographic that generally wouldn't give the soul hits of years past a second look anyway.
Really, if Ronson is going to pander to an audience, he may as well be straightforward about it, as he is with Mark Ronson Presents Hard Rock, a compilation he put together for that collection of genre-named restaurants and hotels. An ode to "cool" wrapped in a sleek black shell, the fourteen songs represented on Hard Rock do, almost perfectly, approximate the playlist experience of sitting down in the Hard Rock for a quick meal. Despite a preference for hot sounds over classic tracks -- only one of these tracks was recorded before the year 2000, and that one is Buckcherry's god-awful "Lit Up", from 1999 -- Ronson actually displays a good ear for appealing, listener-friendly rock songs that sound good after a single listen.
Bodyrockers' "I Like the Way" may have been ruined by advertising, but it's still catchy as hell. Scissor Sisters' "Take Your Mama" and all of its Eltonisms never gets old, and Spiderbait's take on "Black Betty" is actually quite effective in a Disturbed-does-rockabilly kind of way. Ronson himself even gets into the act with the pretty fantastic Rhymefest and Anthony Hamilton hip-hop jam "Bout to Get Ugly".
Despite the relative strength of the songs he picked, however, Ronson's mixing skills take a hit on Hard Rock -- in his attempt to create a hard rock mix with no dead air, he has transposed the ends of songs with the beginning of the songs that follow, and mostly, what happens is the sound of two fast-moving cars hitting each other. There's no clever juxtaposition that makes the last chord of "Take Your Mama" sound at all like it belongs underneath the first couple of guitar strums of Weezer's "Island in the Sun", so really, why bother? It simply sounds awkward. He has also, unfortunately, given in to the gender stereotypes of the genre, relegating the three female-fronted bands to tracks 11-13 of 14. Really, he didn't think we wanted to hear the P.J. Harvey-fronted Giant Drag dismantle Chris Isaak's classic "Wicked Game" until the penultimate track?
To be fair, Mark Ronson Presents Hard Rock is enough to point out that Ronson has a solid ear for what people like to hear, and Version is, at least, thematically consistent. Still, there's very little evidence in either album that's convincing enough to prove that Mark Ronson is actually the production heavyweight he is beginning to be perceived as. And really -- leave ODB alone if all you're going to do is slap him on your Britney Spears cover. That's just wrong.