Thursday, February 26, 2004

28. Danger Mouse - The Grey Album (2004)

I might be risking a cease and desist order by even reviewing this album (my lips are zipped as to how I acquired it; computers were not involved), but how could I resist?

If you didn't know this album is a marriage of sorts. It takes the vocals from Jay-Z's recent Black Album (see the November archives for a review) and places them over music samples from The Beatles' White Album. DJ Danger Mouse is the mastermind behind it, and like a lot of brilliant ideas, it was a gamble. The Beatles' publishing is very tight about the use of those songs (except it seems when it comes to selling out for commercials), so you had to know it wouldn't fly.

So sadly this is a work of art that will never reach the masses.

And have no doubt, this is art. There are those who might find it blasphemous, and those who might simply argue that taking things other people have created and putting them together is not art. But these people would have never had the creative audacity to put the Mother Nature's Son and December 4th (which features Jay's mom as a narrator) together.

I first became aware of the "mash-up" phenomenon via A Stroke Of Genie-us by Freelance Hellraiser. That song took the music from The Strokes' Hard To Explain and added the vocals from Christina Aguilara's Genie In A Bottle with spectacular results. It fit so well together that I was astounded in a Pink Floyd / Wizard Of Oz coincidence sort of way. But the accomplishment was diminished when all sorts of similar tracks began to surface (including a got-to-hear-it-to-believe-it combination of Smells Like Teen Spirit and Bootylicious).

The Grey Album is a step up, because it doesn't do things so literally (despite the maternal connection mentioned above). In most cases Danger Mouse doesn't just put Jay's raps over un-tampered music. He takes guitar licks, drum fills, vocal runs, etc, and loops them to keep pace with the vocals. He even tampers with The Black Album 's original line-up, moving track order and removing one song.

Since it's unlikely that you'll ever hear this, I'll describe what happens, so you can try to imagine it...

What More Can I Say, your typical clever Jay-Z boast, is placed over the piano intro to While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

Stuttering guitar from Glass Onion serve as the background for Encore, one of the many farewells on the record. The best part is how John Lennon seems to be backing up his homie Jay with a repeated "oh yeah!"

99 Problems, a sort of rap-rock throwback is suited perfectly by the throbbing electric guitars and drums of Helter Skelter.

The gentle acoustic guitar of Julia (an ode to John Lennon's mother) is used to create a sort two-step beat for Dirt Off Your Shoulder.

The most inspired moment though is clearly Change Clothes, Jay's current Neptunes-produced single that celebrates stepping out. Danger Mouse takes the bopping harpsichord from George Harrison's condemning Piggies and makes the whole affair unabashedly joyful.

It doesn't all work (the combination of two annoying songs, Lucifer and Revolution 9 just makes one more annoying song). But as I listen to this record I find myself appreciating Jay-Z's lyrical gifts more than I ever have. Also, it inspired me to go back to The White Album and marvel at how advanced The Beatles were. From a current perspective they are so easy to take for granted (because so many bands since have borrowed their stuff), but the fact that they were only 4 years out from "she loves you / yeah, yeah, yeah" makes the maturity of Cry Baby Cry (which is used on the last song, My First Song) that much more amazing.

If you're going to make something out of others' art you can't do any better than simultaneously honoring the original works and making them into something new and exciting. That is exactly what Danger Mouse has done. Now if only more people could hear it...

Rating: A
Fave Song: Change Clothes

No comments: