ALBUM REVIEW:  What's Going On by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band

For their first album after the Katrina disaster, New Orleans stalwarts the Dirty Dozen Brass Band have recorded a cover of the entire classic Marvin Gaye album What's Going On? They have a flood picture on the cover of the album and have promised a cut of proceeds to Katrina relief efforts.  Other than an extremely broad idea of being "socially conscious" though, I don't see what the Katrina stuff has to do with the Marvin Gaye.

However, that just doesn't matter, cause this works mostly quite nicely as music. Being themselves, the Dirty Dozen were naturally going to be radically re-arranging the songs.  Responding to the material, the band's playing generally a little slower and more somber than their generally very cheery sound.  They stretched themselves from one side, and the Marvin Gaye songs from the other.

There was one critical really bad misfire though - the song "What's Going On," specifically the guest rap from Chuck D.  They generally created a really good arrangement.  That's some serious torque under the slow, heavy swing.  Then they ruin it with Chuck D's worthless inarticulate belligerence-by-numbers.  Chuck D's words on this track are utter pollution.  They add absolutely nothing musically.  They're not particularly melodic or even rhythmic.  It's just random hateful ranting about a little of everything, including war and No Child Left Behind, and not particularly making any points about any of it.  If you could get a karaoke version of this recording with Chuck D's bullcrap scraped off, this would be a really good re-thinking of the classic.

["What's Going On" audio streams:  MOV  WMA]

Betty LaVette singing "What's Happening Brother" worked out relatively close to the original, but you could argue that Ms LaVette has turned in a better vocal performance than Marvin.  She's pretty good.

"Save the Children" blessedly becomes almost an instrumental, and definitely a high point of the album.  "Save the Children" actually benefits from losing most of that ridiculous and cloying lyric. "Lets...let's save ALL the children."  Turns out after these many years of that saccharine that there's a decent song there.  But the Dirty Dozen add a lot more to it, particularly with some of that freaky free jazz saxophone at the beginning.  The guitar has some interesting little figures running quietly underneath.  This turns out to be a heller jam, and more impressive with repeated listening.  They add so much funky new stuff that it's almost a new composition.  This definitely rates as considerably more musically interesting than the Marvin Gaye version.

"Mercy Mercy Me" with G Love came out ok, but doesn't really bring much new to the Marvin Gaye original, which was probably the second best song on the album.  However, Ivan Neville rides herd over a nice rolling funk attack on "God Is Love."  

They come in for a big finish "Inner City Blues."  The prominent tuba really does it for me, and really sticks close to Marvin in the emotional tenor.  The trumpet adds another dimension, and really makes an especially righteous jam.  The rap by Guru actually adds something to the mix.  It's much more melodic and musical than the Chuck D nonsense at the start of the album.  Also, the words mean more.

Marvin had a smooth soul man thing going that they can't replace. However, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band end up with much richer and more interesting arrangements for much of this material.  The more you listen to these arrangements, the more cool stuff will jump out at you.  Other than on the title song, I'd take these recordings at least head to head with the Marvin Gaye originals.  


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