Version is a swirling, brass-pumped melting pot of winning incongruity. Orchestrated by British deejay/producer Mark Ronson (the man behind most of the Spector-soaked pastiche cool of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black), it’s a collection of (mostly) U.K. alt-rock covers, with each track broken down to the molecular level and reconstructed by Ronson as sweaty, late-’60s horn-laden soul vamps featuring vocal cameos by several (mostly) U.K. rock and pop stars. The Smiths, Radiohead, the Charlatans, the Jam — they all get refracted through Ronson’s prism of Northern Soul and programmed beats. Such aural vandalizing sounds as if it shouldn’t work, but it does. Mostly.
The album is a lot like a tragic hero, minus the heroism or sense of tragedy (unless you count the vapid, borderline self-parody of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s posthumous freestyles that help spoil Britney Spears’ “Toxic”) in that it’s greatest strength simultaneously undermines its ultimate success. Though several of the audacious covers wonderfully recast their originals — led by Amy Winehouse, the brass-and-bass fueled “Valerie” transforms the Zutons’ crunchy roots-alt-pop into a propellant girl-group groove; Ronson and Daniel Merriweather shape-shift the Smiths’ “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before” from detached Moz irony to sensuous, slowburned and drum-looped modern soul. But by the formula begins to stale. You know exactly what to expect from each successive song: skittering, up-tempo beats Morse-coding beneath Isley Brothers-style horns and Brit-rock lyrical eclectica. Though nearly every track works (the notable exception being the gear-stripped lounge-dirge of “Toxic”), when grouped they become a faceless mass, leaving only the song that shouldn’t work as the album’s standout: Phantom Planet’s “Just,” which roughs up the Radiohead holy cow into a menacing slice of punching horns, ominous vocals, and swinging choruses, all street grit and Stax funk.
Although this album is more cohesive than Ronson’s ramshackle debut, it’s the hyper-cohesion found here that almost topples Version. But then, it’s not meant to be the kind of varied, intimate album that you listen to alone in your room. It’s a party compilation, full of upbeat neo-soul jams and hipster defacement, meant to be played in a sweaty, body-packed club or a speeding ’66 GTO. A one-trick album, sure, but it’s a good trick. Just don’t play it at home.