AGAINST THE MACHINE
Cover versions can permit an artist to step out of character by slipping into a different mindset, or they can signal rigid consistency. Not surprisingly, the latter proves true for Rage Against the Machine on Renegades, a furious collection of a dozen songs by other performers that the band easily bends to its iron will. This isn't necessarily a bad thing: From a pounding rendition of "Pistol Grip Pump" by West Coast hip-hoppers Volume 10, to a snarling, grunged-up assault on Bob Dylan's "Maggie's Farm", singer Zack de la Rocha and company deliver atomic thrills with revolutionary fervor. Still, anyone hungry for new insights into this uniquely righteous band, or looking for evidence of risk-taking, may feel shortchanged.
Some selections work beautifully. While nobody would mistake Rage for the Rolling Stones, the rap-rockers' adaptation of "Street Fighting Man" has its own grimy charisma, complete with an allusion to their participation in last summer's Democratic Convention strife. Bruce Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (the only previously released Rage track found here) couldn't be more bleakly compelling; when de la Rocha moans, ghostlike, about a "one-way ticket to the promised land," eternity itself seems to beckon. Boasting more sweat and muscle than Afrika Bambaataa's bubbly version, "Renegades of Funk" may actually be an improvement over the original, and de la Rocha's swaggering "Microphone Fiend" more than does justice to its source — even though there's no way he could top the solemn self-importance of Rakim's classic performance.
Rage's massive crunch has sometimes suggested Led Zeppelin without the good-humored sleaze. The mighty combo of bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk can pulverize steel, and Tom Morello's jagged guitar makes an exciting racket, an asset producer Rick Rubin wisely highlights. When required to swing a little, though, the band is forced to reveal its inherent stiffness; for all their thunder, Rage can't quite get a handle on the lusty vitality of the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams." They come closer to evoking the Stooges' reckless fury on "Down on the Street" — but where Iggy suggested a man genuinely dancing on the brink, de la Rocha never even hints he might lose control; it's simply not in his nature. Most daring, but disappointing, Devo's eloquently morose "Beautiful World" has been reduced to a self-pitying whisper. (It figures they'd pick one of the spudboys' few unfunny tunes.)
Part of the fun of a covers album is second-guessing the choices. Why not something from the Clash? Public Enemy? The Dead Kennedys? Okay, if those like-minded souls are too obvious, what about the Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," or Chelsea's dole anthem, "Right to Work"? Yes, the potential for silly speculation is limitless.
Renegades could be a product of writer's block. After all, de la Rocha quit Rage shortly before its release, citing a breakdown in the band's decision-making process. Or maybe the album was simply intended as a way of goofing around — although, admittedly, idle fun seems an alien concept to this group. Rage haven't done themselves any harm here, but Renegades ultimately feels like a missed opportunity to do something really different.
In 1992, when I first got my hands on Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled album (on cassette, mind you), I was completely floored. Their sound was so fresh and new that it was truly a welcome change from the Nirvanas and Pearl Jams that were already starting to wear thin with me. After gaining a strong following via word of mouth, a slot on Lollapalooza and MTV airplay of their video clip "Freedom," Rage Against the Machine were starting to make a name for themselves. By the time their second album, "Evil Empire," hit store shelves, they had enough of a fan base to debut at number one on the charts, a radical feat for a band as heavy and controversial as Rage. This follow-up album was not even in the same league as their debut, with the band seemingly falling into the trap of self-parody. What seemed so groundbreaking the first time around sounded like Rage copying themselves. Guitarist Tom Morello’s unique guitar scratches, slides and other indescribable noises were just not as effective on the second go-round. Zach de La Rocha’s lyrical outbursts with lines such as "Come on!" and "Come with it now!" were so common to the Rage formula that you could almost hear them coming before he would even utter the words. This continued with the release of their third studio album, Battle of Los Angeles.
We finally come to the end of Rage’s career and only now are we treated to the first big dose of something really new from the band in nine years. Renegades is a collection of cover songs from artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, Eric B and Rakim, Devo, the Rolling Stones and Cypress Hill, to name just a few. Performing the material of other acts breathes new life into the band. It’s unfortunate that this album comes along at the time when Rage Against the Machine has decided to call it quits. The band had planned on releasing a live album and went into the studio to record two cover songs to include with the live material. The two songs quickly grew into 12 and the decision was made to postpone the live album and to instead release this collection of politically charged hip-hop, rock and punk songs with the title Renegades.
Much of the material on Renegades is so obscure that uninformed fans may think that they are Rage originals. The fact that Rage could take songs by two of my least favorite artists (I won’t say who they are to spare myself the hate mail) and turn them into full-throttle rockers got me enthused about the band again for the first time in over eight years. The album opens with some old-school hip-hop on Eric B & Rakim’s "Microphone Fiend." The hip-hop theme continues until the fifth track "Beautiful World," a cover of the always quirky and bizarre band Devo. The second half of the album goes classic rock with Bruce Springsteen’s "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (originally released as a bonus CD with the purchase of Rage’s first home video), the Rolling Stone’s "Street Fighting Man" and a track from Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing it All Back Home, "Maggie’s Farm." Don’t think for a second that you’re going to hear jangly guitars on these classic rock cover songs. These songs take the spirit of the originals but have been given the full Rage treatment to ensure they will be loud and rockin’.
Famed producer and Def Jam founder Rick Rubin produced Renegades and it was mixed by up-and-coming engineer Rich Costey with better than average results. This recording is not audio demo caliber by any stretch of the imagination, but serves to get the songs across without any major production tricks or knob tweaking. The record sounds raw and has a very loose vibe to it.
The first batch of Renegades CDs include two bonus live tracks "Kick out the Jams" and the Cypress Hill track "How I Could Just Kill a Man," both recorded at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. With the sales success of all of Rage’s albums, you’d better get your hands on Renegades soon if you want to hear these bonus tracks. Alternatively, you can download them using Napster (but you didn’t hear that from me).
by Bryan Dailey - Send us