Social sentiments and political leanings can change, but sweet sweet music is reliable in its longevity. Resistance Radio, the latest release from Danger Mouse’s 30th Century Records, is a powerfully subtle exercise in maintaining the purity and endurance of music, while simultaneously embracing and ignoring the current political climate. The album offers a wide collection of older songs covered by contemporary artists like Benjamin Booker, Norah Jones, Beck, Sam Cohen, Kelis, Karen O and more.
The album is inspired by the new season of The Man in the High Castle, an Amazon series loosely based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, that explores an alternative history where the Allied forces lost World War II to the Nazis. With the backdrop of a nightmare never meant to be experienced, music under Nazi control would be very different indeed, and Resistance Radio is the perfect representation of a sullen nation of heartbroken artists and longing revolutionaries.
It would be enough to start and end on Sharon Von Etten’s astounding cover of “The End of the World,” originally performed by Skeeter Davis in the 60s. However, the album’s signature sound starts to land with heavier impact by the second track, “Nature Boy” performed by MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden. The listener can see with near-perfect clarity what the aim of the album is. Near-perfect becomes perfect on the third song, “Can’t Help Falling In Love” as performed by Beck. Perhaps it is the combination of a classic recognizable song and an iconic recognizable performer that sticks the landing, but if Beck wasn’t enough to nail the vibe of the album, the production is. The rampant wistfulness and desperate yearning of a nation of broken souls are present in every note, and these sad bastards sound amazing.
Handled by Danger Mouse himself and Sam Cohen, a signee to 30th Century Records and extremely gifted producer, the production on the album is arguably more central to the theme than any of the various performers and big names making statements with lyrics. Recurring nuanced production elements include varying degrees of reverb, record vinyl static, and the undeniable tint of an old-timey radio in a wonderfully decorated living room in a 1960s suburban American dream home. Other, more intentional production methods include the use of gorgeous string ensembles, fully fleshed out horn sections, vintage recording techniques and, most notably, the general absence of electronic instruments. In an interview with Billboard, Danger Mouse refers to his analog approach stemming from the time period in which The Man in the High Castle takes place.
“Because it was ‘62 -- pre-Beatles, pre-most stuff people celebrate now as far as rock and roll -- it was a chance to do something different,” he said. The organic nature of the older source music, and the severe torment that is evident in each cover, is what brings frightening life to the project. What can superficially and crudely be referred to as a companion piece to a new season of TV, full of songs that have already been created, ends up standing completely on its own as a work of individual art.
The use of singers like Kelis and Norah Jones as session musicians is encouraging for the future of producers like Danger Mouse and Sam Cohen. In the age of multi hyphenate artists who sing, write, rap, dance, play instruments and manage themselves, it is rewarding to see how this Danger-Cohen version of compartmentalized production can yield vivid results. Whereas an artist like Grimes writes all her own music, directs her own music videos, and even went so far as to learn how to play violin for her most recent album, many artists struggle with such high stakes multitasking and the quality of their work can suffer. Resistance Radio shows us listeners that although there is a new collaborative way to make music over email with bedroom recordings and many cooks in several kitchens, there also exists another collaborative group who willingly provide individual pieces to a leader (or leaders) when the cause is worthy and the leaders are in it for the right reasons. If the reason here is to provide a soundscape of musical resistance to a dystopian Nazi future, that is a noble and worthy undertaking to take on and is certainly justified.
It’s a lot to ask of artists like Beck, Karen O, Norah Jones, Kelis and other big names on Resistance Radio. Every artist featured on the album had their own schedules and affairs to attend to, no one NEEDED to play on it. They chose to. The album shows a slew of wildly talented artists who are willing to work together, and quickly, on existing material and hand it off to the leaders they trust to shape something brand new and uniquely valuable.
This should be no surprise to fans of Danger Mouse. The producer will be the first to tell you that his most commercially far-reaching song “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley is based on a sample of a spaghetti western soundtrack. It is the same producer who mashed up Jay Z’s The Black Album and The Beatles’ The White Album. Taking existing material and reimagining it to meet modern standards and mentalities is what Danger Mouse does with such ease and finesse, it almost seems suspicious. It is as though Danger Mouse was there during recording sessions from both The Beatles and Jay Z and was already thinking decades ahead to when the two would meet on his computer. With the help of talented bandleader Sam Cohen, who is a prolific pysch pop song writer and producer with a never-ending list of impressive credits, Resistance Radio is profoundly effective in its sound and presentation.
The performances on Resistance Radio are all consistently well-matched to their respective covers and each brings the perfect amount of ethos along with them. Kelis sings on an angelic cover of The Miracles’ “Who’s Lovin You” backed by filtered piano and a soft horns section. Grandaddy performs a longing melancholy cover of “Love Hurts” completed with thick saxophone accenting the chorus and psychedelic moans accenting the verse. Karen O fronts such a strong cover of Ferlin Husky’s country track “Living in a Trance” that it put a single tear in a grown hip-hop fan’s eye. That fan shall remain anonymous.
Resistance Radio is a highly potent dose of sorrow. Dangerously relevant and even more dangerously well-presented, this mix of downtrodden and heart-wrenching songs celebrates the beauty in misery as well as the reliability of music as an outlet for unhappiness. Happy weeping.