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Music Review: Dirty Dozen Brass Band – What’s Going On

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It’s been a year since Hurricane Katrina blew away much of the Gulf Coast and pummeled New Orleans. There is still much work to do in the city to bring it back to its once renowned glory. To help benefit the clean up effort, New Orleans own Dirty Dozen Brass Band has released a song-for-song covering of Marvin Gaye’s classic album What’s Going On.

It is more of a reimagining than a straight cover version for they have added in fatter beats punctuated by brass horns and brought in a number of guest stars including Chuck D, Ivan Neville, and G. Love.

My perceptions of this album changed during the course of the numerous listens I gave it in order to write this review. In fact, I wrote a totally different review before giving the album one last spin and deciding my initial thoughts were completely wrong.

That’s an interesting side thought, actually, how perceptions of something can change over time. I’ve been writing reviews for about 18 months and periodically I’ll go through my files and check in on what I thought of a piece. Generally I agree with what I thought back then, but sometimes I’ll totally disagree with myself.

Case in point I wrote a review of the zombie spoof, Shaun of the Dead and in the review I was rather unexcited about the whole thing. I didn’t give it a big jeer, but neither was I particularly enthused. Watching it again, recently, I found myself wondering how I could not have been bowled over by the hilarity within that film.

So many things can effect our consumption of an artwork, and then our own critique of that work, that a review – something set in stone for the ages – is an odd thing. Does Ebert ever go back and admit he’s wrong, I wonder.

For What’s Going On, I initially dismissed a large part of it as having hip hop and rap roots. I am too old, too white, and too from Oklahoma to ever really get rap music, and it wasn’t pleasing to my ears to have rapping over one of the classics. In my reviewing minds eye, all of the songs had some kind of rapping going on over what was actually pretty good back up music.

Listening to the album again, I realized only the first and last songs actually had rap artists laying down rhymes over the music. The rest of the album is either instrumental, or has a guest artist actually singing along. Some of the beats are deep and fat, and certainly there are hip hop influences throughout, but very little actual rapping. I suspect the book ended rapping caused me to believe there was more on the album than there actually is.

So, my review changed and was updated to reflect the new reality.

Covering a well known song, little less an entire album, is a difficult task for any artists. If you stay too close to the original, critics will say it is frivolous and redundant. If you completely rearrange the song making it your own, fans will cry sacrilege and call out for the Inquisition. An artist must ride that line, staying close to what made the original a classic while still maintaining their own uniqueness in the song.

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band manages to find sublime methods of doing this. Often the horns will blow out the lines normally sung, and in the case of the titular track, Chuck D raps his own lyrics, while the musicians stay on track with the melody.

The title track is where I previously spent a lot of negative energy over knocking the album. “What’s Going On” is a classic, beautiful piece of music. You can’t not like that song. In this reimagined version, Chuck D gets his rap on and throws down some hard political lines dissing the aftermath of Katrina and the US government’s response to it.

It’s not that I’m against political statements in art, or even specific words towards specific situations, it’s just that Marvin Gaye created a song that is universal. Though he was speaking about the Vietnam War and the political, racist environment of his time, his lyrics resonate today. His statement speaks out against our current situation and will continue to speak to generations to come. I’m not sure Chuck Ds words will hold up as well.

However, what the Dirty Dozen Brass Band lay down behind the rhymes shakes me inside and out. Like their name implies they hit some brassy, dirty beats with a little Dixieland thing thrown in for fun. They aren’t afraid to lay down deep, heavy beats either, and I’m not afraid to like them.

I can see myself cranking this disk at full volume and shaking my middle-aged-white-boy heiney all night long (or at least until 10:30 which is still past my bedtime.) What’s Going On won’t make you throw out your original copy, but it stand enough on its own to find itself in party rotation or anytime you just want to groove.

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About Mat Brewster