Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Cash Rules Everything Around Me

It never fails to amaze me how the music industry continues to come up with new ways of shooting itself in the arse.

There's a scene near the end of "Walk Hard - The Dewey Cox Story", where the misfiring career of John C. Reilly's washed-up c&w singer is revitalised after one of his songs is sampled as the basis for a multi-million selling rap hit. The difference between this scenario, and the wretched failure of good taste that is 'Johnny Cash Remixed', is that Dewey Cox's serendipitous good fortune is the punchline to the film's central joke. Not only that, but they had sufficient smarts to get Ghostface on the track in the movie.

Whilst you'd hope that, in the name of all that is good and decent, "Johnny Cash Remixed" would die like the dog it surely is, it's nevertheless difficult to look at it and not think; how on Earth could anybody think this was an idea worth spending money on in the first place? By its very nature, there's going to be a degree of gilding the lily involved with any remix project involving a Heritage Artist, particularly when the work of said artist doesn't immediately lend itself to such treatment. In this case, though, it seems particularly pointless. After all, it's no exaggeration to describe Johnny Cash as a giant of American popular music. Even if you were to disregard the recent, somewhat sanitised, biopic "Walk The Line" and the widely-acclaimed American Recordings series, made in his twilight years under the aegis of Rick Rubin - things which actually did bring the man and his music to a new, younger audience - Cash is hardly somebody you'd describe as a forgotten man in any event. Furthermore, it's unlikely anybody discovering Cash since his death in 2003 would need, or want, to have been met halfway by something as godawful as this

Compare such a shambles to the altogether more respectful treatment Cash's Columbia back catalogue continues to receive at the hands of Sony BMG's appropriately-named Legacy division, and you begin to see it for what it undoubtedly is. After somehow finagling access to a bunch of Sun-era Cash masters, the guilty parties - amongst others, Snoop Dogg, Matthew Knowles (father/manager of Beyonce) and John Carter Cash (who really ought to know better) - have decided that these recordings would benefit enormously from the musical equivalent of a "Pimp My Ride" makeover. Thus, the spare, introspective menace of I Walk The Line is obliterated beneath an unremarkable off-the-peg backing track that does its creators (Snoop, DJ Quik and Teddy Riley) no favours at all. In fact, the list of participants on each remix tells its own story; two-thirds of them are what you'd politely describe as "marginal" figures, many of whom seem to have little form beyond having contributed to several other projects of a similar nature (Kennedy? Count De Money? Mocean Worker? Me neither). You're left with the impression that any genuine A-list names who'd been asked to contribute had suddenly found themselves with prior commitments. No wonder, since virtually everything on here is barely listenable hackery of the shabbiest kind.

Worst of a very bad bunch indeed is Pete Rock's awful "will this do?" take on Folsom Prison Blues. Now, Pete Rock is without question one of the greatest and most innovative producers in the history of hip-hop, and I have to admit that I was at least curious to hear what he'd done with the source material. A filtered SP1200 bassline from some obscure Fania record? A few signature growls and ad-libs from The Chocolate Boy Wonder as a high lonesome horn sample pans back and forth across the stereo picture? The snare from Mountain's Long Red? Nope. What we get is the kind of rhythm track that probably took a minute to punch up, and which was then thrown into ProTools along with the master recording and, a few tweaks later, being FedEx-ed back to the label, doubtless within the hour. In fact, Compadre Records (let's name names here) could just as likely have found someone in their own mailroom every bit as capable of delivering something just as cheap and shoddy-sounding for a tenth of what they paid Pete Rock.

Whilst the debate continues to rage on both sides of the Atlantic over whether the copyright period for sound recordings should be extended, you'd think that the so-called custodians of some of the touchstones of modern popular music would be a little more eager to show they were up to the job. In their haste to squeeze more mileage out of these recordings in such an ill-advised manner, they've succeeded only in producing something destined to end up as road surfacing in a far-flung province of China.

1 comment:

Laura said...

GREAT review. I love the Pete Rock remix from the album. The Snoop Dogg version of "Walk The Line" was a little different, but I don't hate it! I don't know if you've checked out the myspace - myspace.com/johnnycashremixed - but that's how I found out about it.