Conventional wisdom says that turning a hard rock song into a funk song would be a novelty—a cheeky exercise in converting something raw, loud, and “dark” into something upbeat, danceable, and “fun.” In other words, completely stupid. Conventional wisdom would be correct if one applied the technique to, for example, AC/DC. As is so often the case, however, conventional wisdom does not apply to Queens of the Stone Age.
Mark Ronson is best known for his work as the producer of both Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen. He’s got an ear for brass, infusing most of what he touches with flares of Motown, ska, and classic R&B. His cover of “No One Knows” is no exception. Musically, it sounds a bit like something out of James Brown’s catalog. The vocals are provided by Domino, adding another layer of Ronson’s signature sound (female vocals) to the cover. In that sense, “No One Knows” is exactly what you’d expect from Ronson.
But, it’s also completely surprising in other ways. The surprises, oddly enough, don’t come from anything Ronson does, but through the source material itself. To explain: the cover is a wild success, not because Ronson is so skilled at turning anything into his signature sound (although he is very good at that), but because there is already a deep, albeit subterranean, funk sound to the Queens’ music. Ronson, in this sense, takes another tried and true approach to covering a song—he locks in on a subtle element from the source material and rebuilds the song from that premise. So, while the thought of a cover like this sounds a bit ridiculous on paper, it’s actually a natural fit. Ronson’s interpretation of the song feels completely organic and never forced.
And if Ronson’s treatment of the music produces a surprise, the lyrics to “No One Knows” are a revelation. Queens of the Stoneage frontman Josh Homme has never been shy about infusing his words with a sense of drama… but he’s never melodramatic. When Domino delivers these same lyrics with a drawn, longing whine, it makes you realize not only how subtle Homme’s songwriting can be (even on the band’s most popular song), but also how much pain is buried beneath the otherwise muscular, lean, no-nonsense Queens’ sound.
In that sense, Ronson is participating in another winning tradition of cover songs: The Cover as Archaeology. He digs through the components of something that has the depth to support excavation, finds hidden treasures, and brings them to light. He helps us understand why Queens of the Stoneage are so damn good in the first place. He also creates a damn good song in its own right. Which is nice.
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