Various Artists (No Label import)Dale Lawrence Listening to The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever, a recent compilation of 17 "mashups," is like visiting a bizarre parallel universe: one with a wilder, more dynamic rock scene than our own. Also known as "bootlegs" or "bastard pop," mashups have been popular for a couple years now in European dance clubs - especially in England, where they"re featured prominently on London radio"s popular Remix program. But despite recent features on NPR, in Spin and the New York Times, mashups remain little more than a rumor over here. Mashups are records constructed on home computers, often by teen-agers, in which existing tracks are combined into new ones - remixes, basically, except in this case it"s hard to say exactly what they"re remixes of. A typical (and famous) mashup takes the vocal from a Christina Aguilera song and lays it over the instrumental track from a Strokes tune, pairing the original melody with a different chord progression to create what"s essentially a new song. Island Records recently released a legal mashup, but there are hundreds of illicit ones floating around, posted on the Internet or issued as white-label 12-inches that disappear in a few weeks. None of which, of course, is without precedent in the world of club music. What is unprecedented is the way the best mashups sound - not like some tricked-up dance track, but like full-blown rock "n" roll. They might be the freshest, most exciting records being made right now. Made for each other News accounts of mashups often start by invoking a joke: What do you get when you cross Nirvana with Destiny"s Child? And, in fact, trying to describe mashups can make them sound pretty goofy. On Best Bootlegs, Missy Elliott (unwittingly) joins forces with the Cure, Salt-N-Pepa are backed by the Stooges, Chuck D by the Tijuana Brass. The paradox is that mashups actually sound less like novelty records than most techno, which too often fits far too easily into a long boring tradition of rock instrumentals: from "Wipe Out" to "Frankenstein," a novelty record graveyard if there ever was one. Cutups and sampledelica, techno genres whose cut-and-paste techniques would seem most akin to mashups, employ those methods to very different ends. When a cutup artist like Kid606 uses vocal tracks at all, they become one of many ingredients in an aural collage or soundscape - distorted, objectified, left floating in a wash of percussion. But on a mashup the vocal tracks sound like lead vocals and the final products are actual songs - songs of appropriately modest length with hooks and bridges and emotional payoffs. You might think that after the initial shock of hearing "Bootylicious" sung to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" passes, so would any reason to listen again. In fact, it"s once you get past that first giggle that the record"s allure begins to deepen. You not only want to hear it again, you may not want to hear anything else. On track after track, the wonder is not that the original recordings fit together so seamlessly, but that they ever existed apart from each other. Jacknife Lee"s "Get Your 9lb Cock On" finds Missy Elliott fronting the obscure Irish punk combo Compulsion like they"ve been rehearsing together for months. On Soulwax"s "Push It / No Fun," the Stooges" guitars lean so hard on Salt-N-Pepa"s vocals you could almost believe it was recorded live. It"s unnervingly sexy - and more than a little scary. Unlike more conventional remixes, mashups tend to completely transform the original tracks, not just redecorate them. The vocals are often taken from largely reviled or ignored sources - cornball pop acts like Aguilera or Destiny"s Child - and recast in wildly unlikely contexts (Nirvana, Gary Numan) where, against all odds, they actually work. The neopunk chord progressions help focus the melodies, while eliminating much of the original production excess. But what"s most startling is the way the new settings magically turn TLC (or Destiny"s Child or Adina Howard) into effective, even great singers: simultaneously expert riot grrrls and the sultry soul queens they clearly aspire to be. (That the loud guitars often obscure some of the more embarrassing melismas helps a lot.) In an odd way these records recall a particular strain of girl pop from the 60s and 70s - devastating vocalists like Dusty Springfield, Olivia Newton-John, even Tammy Wynette, whose relatively few great (producer-driven) singles stand out in otherwise largely unfocused careers. (Of course, how was Christina Aguilera to know that her ideal producer was an anonymous 16-year-old in London?) Rock music meets rock theory One of the most exciting things about mashups is the way (much like "70s punk) that they function not just as rock music, but also as rock theory - critiquing by example, pointing a finger at how stifled and obvious the current musical landscape has become. There"s a lot going on here and most of it qualifies as liberating. Suddenly rap doesn"t have to be set to predictable funk beats, pop/R&B ballads don"t have to come wrapped in cheese, garage melodies don"t have to recycle the Ramones. Listening to Freelance Hellraiser"s "A Stroke of Genius" or McSleazy"s "Don"t Call Me Blur," one realizes how much more bands like the Hives or the Strokes could be doing - particularly if they didn"t so consistently turn a deaf ear to black music. The cross-pollination of black and white sounds has virtually defined American pop, but in today"s indie-rock scene, funk (or its first cousin, rap) is about the only trace of R&B you"re likely to hear. That strict musical segregation is the key subtext of Best Bootlegs. Many of the tracks are textbook examples of how exciting the collision of black and white rock can be. It"s not just the adding of techno touches, but a general loosening up of melody and rhythm. The melodies of "Don"t Call Me Blur" or "9lb Cock On" still sound punk - but it"s punk informed by Smokey Robinson, punk that likes to dance as much as it likes to fight. "A Stroke of Genius" (which pits Christina Aguilera"s "Genie in a Bottle" against the Strokes" "Hard to Explain") is better, not just than either original track, but than any song in the Strokes" catalog. The way the melody line snakes around the guitars, the unexpected harmonic twists in the chorus, the breakdown on the "My heart is saying no" line is fairly breathtaking. It wouldn"t sound out of place on the first Pretenders album. Tracks like this and "Smells Like Booty" (also by Freelance Hellraiser) succeed in rescuing the love song from the clutches of Clive Davis (a feat that alt-rock bands like the Strokes are too cool to even try). The lyrics to "Genie" or "Bootylicious" may be the stuff of teen fantasy, but to pair them with punk is to take them seriously. The results are erotically charged, emotionally overdetermined performances ý la "Please Please Me" or "He"s Sure the Boy I Love." These are very strange records, which is to say they don"t quite sound like anything else. Several mashups use Eminem raps to surprising ends, including the delirious "My Name Is Funk Soul Brother" (included anonymously on Best Bootlegs), which interweaves vocals from Fatboy Slim"s "The Rockafeller Skank" and Eminem"s "My Name Is" (sped up just enough to turn Slim Shady into a blathering hip-hop Jerry Lewis). The real star of the track, however, is the rhythm bed, built around the coolest of riffs, lifted from Mickey Finn and Aphrodite"s drum and bass remix of "Rockafeller." It"s effortlessly kinetic, as stripped-down as a two-note James Brown guitar figure - except it"s closer to Eddie Cochran than to funk and it rocks like nothing on or off the charts right now. Even the best of Eminem"s official releases seem like they"re standing still next to tracks like this or "I Just Can"t Get Enough Pills" (the D12 rap "Purple Pills" goosed by Depeche Mode). Another parallel with "70s punk rock is that mashups require the least technical skill of any electronic genre to date while yielding the greatest results. There"s virtually no room for the authoring DJ to show off his chops: All of the skill is in the selection and juxtaposition of source samples. Invention and audacity These aren"t flashy records, merely great ones. Of course, obtaining the rights to sample chart-topping hits is prohibitively expensive, which is one reason you may never have heard a mashup: Most of them are illegal. Even Christina Aguilera (who you would think would welcome the kind of hip validation a duet with the Strokes would bring) put the kibosh on "Stroke of Genius" just as it was starting to take off in England. It"s no coincidence that, in their invention and sheer audacity, mashups recall early hip-hop classics like the Beastie Boys" Paul"s Boutique and De La Soul"s 3 Feet High and Rising - work done in the halcyon days of rap, before a flood of lawsuits put an end to casual sampling. The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever is becoming increasingly hard to find, but it"s worth the effort: Almost every track outruns its source material by a mile. These are records that deserve to be heard - they would jump off the radio, for one thing. A wider audience might also be the only way to find out if mashups are really the turning of a corner that they seem to be, to see how much of the rock world they"re capable of shaking up. Sooner or later the major labels will get wise, find out who Freelance Hellraiser and DJ French Bloke are, put them under contract - and, of course, that will likely be the exact moment the genre begins sliding downhill. In the meantime, finding the latest cuts by Dsico or Magic Cornflake or Girls on Top requires some effort - but also constitutes something of an adventure: Now there"s a word you don"t much associate with rock "n" roll anymore.
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