In 2003, I wrote in this magazine that Mark Ronson’s debut, Here Comes the Fuzz, was a ”cloying and insubstantial” attempt to replicate the kind of überhip, VIP-clogged parties at which the DJ/producer plied his trade. (Harsh, I know, but the name-dropping was deafening.) Nearly four years later, the stepson of Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones has gone from celebutante spinner to producer du jour — and he’s making better use of those gilded connections. Version features the sexy breakouts who put him on top, Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse, plus indelible ham Robbie Williams and RIP MC Ol’ Dirty Bastard. But this time, Ronson forsakes hip-hop-heavy originals for an extended karaoke session, with participants joyously twisting popular tunes by everyone from Radiohead to Britney Spears, and — what do you know! — it turns out to be the monster jam of the season.
To pull it off, Ronson elects mostly to cover songs with strong, catchy melodies. Nothing here gets rejiggered so drastically as to be rendered unrecognizable — not even the rollicking, brassy instrumental of Coldplay’s ”God Put a Smile Upon Your Face.” But Ronson and a rotating band of musicians steeped in Motown, Curtis Mayfield, and Stax greats like Booker T. & the MGs tease out the neck-snapping groove. The transformation isn’t overwhelmingly dramatic when it comes to recent, already funky U.K. smashes like the Kaiser Chiefs’ ”Oh My God” and the Zutons’ ”Valerie,” faithfully resung by Allen and Winehouse, respectively. But just swapping the whining guitars for horns and subbing in Paul Smith’s airy reinterpretation tweaks Maxïmo Park’s ”Apply Some Pressure” from angsty anthem to uplifting stomper.
When it comes to sparser source material, Ronson fills out the edges with the type of earthy drums and bass that hip-hop-schooled producers like himself kill to sample. Angular oldies like the Smiths’ ”Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” and the Jam’s ”Pretty Green” get much-needed muscle, the latter morphing into a playful sing-along that the Tom Tom Club might have once thrown down. The album’s high point, Ryan Adams’ formerly acoustic ”Amy,” as sung by Ethiopian electro-pop upstart Kenna, is both bangin’ and beautiful.
Regardless of who’s on the mic, Version succeeds thanks to Ronson’s singular vision of smooth ’60s-and ’70s-era soul merged with contemporary pop. All in all, it’s a bouncy, people- friendly party starter that was on serious repeat at a barbecue held just last week in this critic’s modest backyard. The turnout was pretty good, but, as it should be, the set list far outshone the guest list.