Los Angeles's Rage Against The Machine had quite a run. Selling records by the millions while never wavering from one of the most activist political stances in mainstream music is no mean trick. That it was all delivered with an urban groove so phat and heavy that everyone from a hip-hop auteur to a metal-head Neanderthal could get fully down without even thinking much only heightened the band's appeal.
But earlier this year the time-honored "creative differences" rent even this mighty machine asunder, and so we are left with the coda CD Renegades. Consisting of 12 covers of punk, funk and classic rock songs that the band considers essential, the album offers no real reason for anyone who isn't already a fan to buy it. Some of these takes are inspired. Others are not. But all in all, if not already initiated, one would probably wonder what the heck the big deal was all about.
If you're already a convert, though, Renegades makes one thing clearer than ever: RATM was one of the most efficient, pure, plug-in-the-amps-and-go bands ever assembled. Each of the musicians involved, though keenly talented, holds himself back for the construction of the greater whole, turning RATM into a funkified AC/DC; easy to imitate, nearly impossible to duplicate.
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Part of the credit is due to producer Rick Rubin. Famous, if sometimes derided, for his insistence on boiling bands down to their essential elements, Rubin succeeds in this case by putting RATM in your space. On more than one occasion, the listener could be forgiven for checking his EQ to make sure nothing got knocked out of whack, so close to the edge does Renegades skate.
The other force at work, besides RATM itself, is the material. Some of it -- Eric B & Rakim's "Microphone Fiend," Volume 10's "Pistol Grip Pump," Afrika Bambaataa's "Renegades of Funk" -- fits the band so naturally that they could have appeared on any of the records to date. Other parts -- the previously released version of Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and a guttural, base-driven, butt-simple take on Dylan's "Maggie's Farm" -- are so powerful in this form it's as if they were born too early and have only now found their true voice.
It's not all successful. The MC5's "Kick Out the Jams," Cypress Hill's "How I Could Just Kill a Man" and the Stones' "Street Fighting Man" all come off as either stilted or gratuitously altered. That initial judgment fades over time, as RATM's purpose becomes clearer. But still, substantially more compelling live versions of the first two songs appear as a hidden track on initial pressings, which only reopens the question of why the studio takes remained at all.
Even so, Renegades makes a fine farewell for fans, or at least a nice tide-me-over while the wait begins for the live material to start getting mined.