Angry. Frustrated. Spitting venom.
I’m in job limbo right now because the people who have ALREADY HIRED ME won’t return my calls. I reported for my first day on the job and was told to go home and wait for my editor/boss to call me. That was yesterday. I’ve left two messages that haven’t been followed up on, and I’m not even sure I want to work for these people any more.
On top of all that, Bush is president.
I am, you might say, enraged.
Which puts me in an excellent frame of mind to review the latest (and probably last) Rage Against the Machine album, Renegades.
I’m never angrier than when I’m angry at myself, especially when I’ve misjudged something, and here comes another old wound. In 1997 I lambasted Rage’s second album, Evil Empire, and went so far as to call their political stance “bullshit to make them seem relevant.” What can I say now but, oops? Rage have had the last laugh on me by remaining one of the most staunchly political bands this side of Midnight Oil, taking on cause after cause and staging some of the most effective protests in recent years. Band members have been jailed and beaten for their political ideas. They’re the real deal, and I can’t apologize enough for my rashness.
Another thing I responded to harshly was the band’s musical style, calling loud rap-rock their “one trick” and wishing for a Rage album full of acoustic guitars and flowers. What the fuck was wrong with me? Admittedly, this was when I still hadn’t developed a sense of hip-hop as a genre all its own, with a unique language both verbal and sonic that influenced other performers. I was into certain rap artists, Public Enemy chief among them, but I didn’t imagine beats and rhymes as a style others might try to emulate, especially if those others could play instruments.
Rage Against the Machine was several years ahead of me, and of the cultural curve. They took the basic elements of hip-hop and translated them to the Led Zeppelin lineup of guitar-bass-drums-vocals. They proudly proclaimed on each of their records that all sounds therein were made with those instruments, because at times it was difficult to believe it. Guitarist Tom Morello and bassist Brad Wilk were just as diverse in their sonic palette as the best DJs working in hip-hop, layering their songs with scratches, swoops, whistles and deep, heavy grooves.
Their best album, 1999’s The Battle of Los Angeles, changed my mind, but the sound had been there all along. I had just been too myopic to hear it. Behind Zach de la Rocha’s blistering vocals were one of the tightest and most original rock outfits of the time. They channeled the energy of one of rap’s true masterpieces, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and fueled it with the full-on power of 30 years of thundering rock bands. Rage were a true zeitgeist band. They grabbed hold of the musical climate they saw around them and forced it to change direction, and at the same time reflected our constantly merging culture by bringing disparate musics (and their fans) together.
What’s that old saying about not knowing what you have?
Two bombs have dropped in the last 30 days. The first is that Zach de la Rocha has left Rage. Who knows if they’ll continue, but they probably shouldn’t continue as Rage Against the Machine. The second is the final album by the original lineup, Renegades. I mean “bomb” in the hip-hop sense, not the sales chart sense. You know, as in “Renegades is the bomb.” (Quoth the white guy, nevermore.)
Renegades is a covers album, and therefore ineligible for the Top 10 List, but it’d probably be there if not for my pesky rule. It tackles the question of covering hip-hop tracks without doing unintentional send-ups (or intentional ones, like Dynamite Hack’s “Boyz In the Hood”). Since the production of a rap track basically is the music, how does one cover it? Well, if you’re a true fan of the genre, you realize that the words are what’s important and you throw out the music entirely.
Rage has crafted, in essence, a cover album of originals by writing their own music to the words of their influences. In every case, they’ve claimed these songs as their own in ways that other bands who’ve attempted similar things have not. The whole album is one surprise after another, even in the band’s choices of source material, and it creates an exciting sort of suspense as you wonder at what they’ll do to the next song.
Rage’s influences are no mystery, so starting off this album with Eric B. and Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend” and Volume 10’s “Pistol Grip Pump” seems almost mandatory. Both songs are injected with new grooves and new power. The surprises hit when they tackle MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” (in a slow, thunderous rendition) and Devo’s (!) “Beautiful World.” The latter track is stripped of its ironic brightness and performed sparsely, so that the true pain of the lyrics can be heard. One might argue that this robs the song of its subtle venom, and one would be right, but Rage Against the Machine have never even pretended to be subtle. This rendition suits them better.
Rage trots out their punk chops with Minor Threat’s great “In My Eyes” and the Stooges’ “Down On the Street,” but it’s in the album’s least likely second half that the group shines brightest. After an amazing take on Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man” (a definite highlight), Rage tackles Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Followers of the band have heard this version before. While the Boss’ original is spare and acoustic, Rage’s rewrite hits like an army of jackhammers.
The last two selections seem to define Rage Against the Machine. They pulverize the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” by emulating, down to the last perfectly placed element, a throbbing techno track. The sonic range here is jaw-dropping, and Mick’s lyrics have never had a better foundation. They close with a slow-motion powerhouse rewrite of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” that highlights the anger hidden in the original. On both of these tunes, Rage has knowingly connected the musical fabric of the last 30 years. In fact, all of Renegades accomplishes a similar feat. It pays respect to three decades of political songwriters and wraps them up in a sound that crosses genres. Like it or not, Rage Against the Machine is the sound of the now, like almost no other band. More than that, though, they’re the sound of the future, pushing relevant, powerful music to new places while making sure that the past is not forgotten.
Renegades is one of the best albums of the year, and if it turns out to be the last to bear the band’s name, it’s a hell of a way to go out.
Okay, one last piece of music news before I go. On March 6, Amy Ray will become the first Indigo Girl to release a solo album. You know what she called it?
That’s just beautiful.
Next time, the Top 10 List. I have the feeling it’ll be twice this length.
See you in line Tuesday morning.