One of the most uncanny effects of so-called mash-up bootlegs is the way already existing rhythm tracks by bands who’ve never seemed particularly swinging (XTC, Metallica) can be suddenly loosened up, utterly transformed by adding even marginally funky singers (Whitney Houston, Beyoncé Knowles). Sometimes this process is helped along by adjusting the speed of the original track, finding the tempo where the rhythm actually connects to a groove. In most cases, though, the key move is the switching of vocalists. It’s a vivid illustration of how often rhythm can be a function of melody, of how inflections in the lead voice can redefine a beat.
Cases in point are a couple of outstanding mash-ups floating around cyberspace at the moment. Go Home Productions’ “Making Plans For Vinyl” slaps the vocal from Tweet’s recent r&b hit “Oops (Oh My)” onto instrumental backing from XTC’s 1979 “Making Plans For Nigel.” The Tweet original is pretty great to begin with—a typically stripped-down Timbaland production with a knockout bridge that rides its two chords to the moon and back. But “Making Plans For Vinyl” is better: an equally stripped-down but swaggering piece of guitar rock that it’s difficult to imagine an effete art project like XTC having anything to do with. Once you’re familiar with the mash-up, though, the old XTC track is pretty hard to sit through: plodding, relentlessly asexual, with a mincing vocal, painfully fey melody, and dated dopey political lyrics. Go Home bumps the tempo up a bit, constructs a whole new high-hat pattern, holds the big guitar riff off until the chorus, and hangs onto the secondary riff even longer, turning it into a guitar solo. Brilliant moves all, but it’s still Tweet’s sly vocal that finally turns the corner. Negotiating between the guitar and drums, it changes a stiff beat into a woozy elastic one. If the Rolling Stones had a legit comeback single left in them, here’s how it might sound.
Mash-ups are capable of magical transformations, but the most truly magical sounding one I’ve heard is Magic Cornflake’s “Close to Women.” Again, the source materials seem unlikely: vocals from Destiny’s Child’s 2001 hit “Independent Women, Pt. 1” over rhythm bed from “Close to Me (Closer Mix)” by the Cure. This time, both are sped up slightly, and what results is the sound of a spell being cast: an effortless groove, incantatory vocals punctuated by left-field horn and keyboard riffs, a swirling organ wrapping around like gauze. The stock arrangement of the Destiny’s single bled all life from the melody, especially when the leaden minor-key chorus kicked in, focusing one’s attention on the lyrics’ feminist message. The Cornflake track sets up the song more effectively, revealing the melody’s sharp playfulness and creating a rich tension as vocals strain against the boundaries of the short repeating chord pattern. The lyrics, meanwhile, become joyously beside the point—Beyoncé mostly seems to be speaking in tongues. As the chorus resolves, “Charlie how your angels get down like that” emerges as some wonderful euphemism from another dimension.
The original (1985) Cure track was an attempt to painstakingly build a very slow deep soul groove—which it does finally do, just in time for the vocals to enter and capsize everything. Or, more accurately, the singing comes in and does nothing —provides no focus for the track, no point to the riffing: in short, no melody. The Cure are another band I’ve always thought rhythmically challenged. But the mash-ups that employ their records have made me realize that the band’s problem lies not in their rhythm section per se, but in Robert Smith’s terminally mopey singing. If the rhythmic information contained in Beyoncé or Tweet’s vocals—the implied r&b reference points surrounding them—can have this kind of impact, then surely square singing must sabotage equally ordinary (i.e., potentially wonderful) tracks every day.