Current Issue Details

Buy Current Issue

Reviews > CDs

Published: 2004/02/26
by Jesse Jarnow

The Grey Album – DJ Danger Mouse

certainly not on Capitol Records

So, I don't really listen to hip-hop. It was never a conscious decision,
except for maybe a few years in high school when I decided that "techno" was
also terrible. (Hey, I was a teenage hippie snob.) After a certain point, I
decided that I actually did like hip-hop, but was just totally
overwhelmed about where to begin. I've listened to a little more since then,
though I'm still not inclined to trust my own judgment.

Enter The Grey Album.

Constructed entirely from vocal tracks from Jay-Z's Black Album
layered over samples from The Beatles' (so-called) White Album and
only released in limited batch o' 3000 or so copies (and circulated freely
on the 'net), Capitol Records has promised to sue the living bejeezus out of
anybody having anything to do with DJ Danger Mouse's renegade creation. Just
makes it all the more alluring, huh? Sure did for me. So, on the net-wide Grey Tuesday, during which
sympathetic geeks were encouraged to throw The Grey Album up on their
servers, I fired up Transmit and downloaded the disc from a friend's FTP

I'm not familiar with The Black Album. Never heard it. But, like many
graduates of Midwestern liberal arts colleges, I'm pretty intimately
familiar with The White Album (and, coincidentally, was just
listening to some outtakes from it with my neighbor this morning). From the
perspective of somebody who knows that music quite well, it's quite amazing
to hear what Danger Mouse has done to the material — taken a familiar
source and chopped it up almost beyond belief, but not entirely. The
Beastie Boys (those other liberal arts perennials), of course, made their
first fortunes chopping up The Beatles and Zeppelin and whatnot, using the
familiar as a bridge into the new, but there's something challenging about
knowing that all of this music came from, more or less, one source.

Listening, then, is a puzzle, an open challenge to anybody willing to wade
through. On some level, it's pure calisthenics — such as hearing one of
John Lennon's slightest vocal exhalations from "Julia" get chopped up into a
sampled rhythm on "Dirt Off Your Shoulder." In terms of time compression and
ProTools tricks and whatnot, it's a right virtuoustic performance, as if
The White Album latently contained this hip-hop album the whole time
and was only waiting for somebody to unlock it, to carve it out of an
undifferentiated block of granite. As harsh as some of the beats are, each
is undergridded with Beatle-sounds, which (at least for me) are prominent in
the canon of Comforting Music. There's no irony to the samples. Danger Mouse
clearly had to know The White Album inside out to even attempt
this. The complexity of the entire project ranges far beyond "ain't I
clever?" tactics of samples. By forcing himself to use The Beatles as his
palette, he can't give up and call up some random James Brown sample when he
can't find a groove to fit under some tune.

And Jay-Z? Where does he stand in this? I dunno if he's any good. I think he
is. Certainly, the internal rhythms of his lyrics are pretty impressive,
falling together with a deft serendipity that fits well over the
fake-accidental functionality of the background tracks. From the stately
opening of "What More Can I Say," which features (at first) an almost
unaltered lift from "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," to the tangles of
Allure (what is that?) that eventually drop into a simple,
straight guitar figure from "Dear Prudence" to lead into the disc-closing
"99 Problems," the disc is right engrossing. The latter song calls from Paul
McCartney's manic Charles Manson-inspiring "Helter Skelter," which makes one
realize that it's taken the whole album for Danger Mouse to get to the heavy
rocker's totally obvious blues-metal riffs. And then it takes the song's
entire four minutes and six seconds to realize that there are about a dozen
songs that don't seem to be obvious anywhere on The Grey
Album, which – in turn – leads to the remarkable realization that there
might be a few more things hidden inside The White Album. If only
Manson had a sampler.

An odd post-script to my initial listening experiences stems from the fact
that The Grey Album is one of the first albums to receive widespread
distribution and notoriety without a significant print run. It only exists
in the ether. As such, it's bound to be a little more flexible than
something put out as a concrete product. In my case, for some reason, iTunes
played the album in reverse order. It should have begun with the
crashing "99 Problems" (in retrospect, a much more aggressive and sensible
opener) and ended with the "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"-driven "What More
Can I Say." Indeed, the tracks flow much better in this order, but the
revelation still stands: one gets to the end, hears "Guitar" and realizes
that it had been absent until that point, and wonders what other nooks might
be carved from the Fabs' work, or even from Danger Mouse's.

Show 0 Comments