Column: Kiss Off, Rick Rubin
For how much producers contribute to the process of making music, there are only a handful of names that are recognizable. Off the top of my head I can only come up with three: Jon Brion, Jim O’Rourke (does he even count?), and Nigel Godrich (I’m excluding hip-hop producers like Danger Mouse, Mad-Lib, Doom, etc.). But there’s one more, and he can’t be overlooked. He can’t be overlooked because he is, in fact, the most well-known and sought-after producer in rock/pop music. His name is Rick Rubin.
It’s easy to see why the guy is so famous. He has some fantastic albums under his belt. Soundgarden’s “Superunknown”, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” and “Californication”, all of Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings”, Rage Against the Machines’ “Renegades”, and System of a Down’s “Toxicity” are a few of them. The man has worked with Slayer, LL Cool J, Tom Petty, Mick Jagger, Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, Neil Diamond, Jay-Z, and the Smashing Pumpkins. Very (and I mean very) few producers can boast such an incredible résumé.
But despite all that, I have a fucking bone to pick with him. I know he got famous for “stripping down the music” and “letting great artists speak for themselves” but for the last five years or so, it seems like that’s all gone to hell. When I listen to the vast majority of his recent work, few words come as easily into my head as “overproduced”.
Let’s do a quick run-over of how Mr. Rubin has spent the last few years. He produced both Audioslave albums, a task that would seem easy working with the experienced musicians in the group. However, on their debut (and especially on their follow-up) the energy and dynamics that make the ex-Rage Against the Machine members so interesting had all been sapped. The great riffs were still there and, of course, Chris Cornell can do no wrong, but the life was missing from the mix. The same goes for The (International) Noise Conspiracy’s full-length debut: a band known for its energy seemed to be sleepwalking through the album. These are not mistakes on the band’s part; the phenomenon known as “energy” that can be captured on a recording is largely the work of the producer and how he/she chooses to handle a certain group’s songs.
There are far better examples, however. System of a Down’s two-part Mezmerize/Hypnotize sounded like soft-core metal produced like a pop album. Rivers Cuomo put his dying band’s life in Rubin’s hands and the result was “Make Believe”, a collection of semi-decent songs that sounded so clean cut and sterile nobody could take them seriously. And then, in yet another blow to a band dear to my heart, we have as evidence the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Stadium Arcadium”. And while the double album could have used a better filtering process and would have benefited by putting fewer effects pedals under the feet of John Frusciante, the several great songs on the album, like the Weezer tracks and System of a Down’s two-part album, are rendered lifeless by the production. The instruments sounds as if they’re coming from a crystal room, fragile, pure, and isolated. On their own they sound pristine, to say the least.
But the nature of music needs things to be otherwise. Music is about the connection it makes, the raw energy it carries, and the imperfections of the musicians. Without those things, music means nothing; it is a beautiful deity, floating above us but never gracing anyone with any sort of relationship other than that of the worshipper to the worshipped. And while I can respect beauty in music as much as the next guy, I want beauty I can touch, hear, and feel, even if it’s imperfect. The connection is worth it.
And, as far as I’m concerned, Rick Rubin has eliminated this connection by spending so much time isolating the sounds from anything other than their own layers. I’m not saying it’s entirely his fault, because it’s not. The bands he works with are more than capable of controlling their own sound and contributing to the way their album is recorded, but with the large number of albums Rubin has drained of energy in the last few years, a pointed finger is very deserved.
I’ve only had one argument against my opinion of Rubin’s recent work, and that argument centered around Cash’s “American Recordings”. These albums are nothing if not human and imperfect and incredibly moving. Of course, if you put a microphone in front of a man like Cash you’re going to get gold, no matter who the producer is. But even in Cash’s instance, I sense a bit of overproduction—it’s simply less evident because there’s less to ruin. Cash’s voice at the time was so frail that there was no way to make it sound as polished as the vocals on Rubin’s other releases. Ruining the recording of an acoustic guitar is also a difficult thing to do. But even then, there are moments when the crystal-clear ringing of a chord is too perfect for human taste to relate to.
And so, I must conclude with this: Rick Rubin, even though you are the most famous producer in music today, I must humbly ask you to stay the fuck away from bands with great energy and potential, because you will ruin their music with your ridiculous overproduction. If you could stick with Lil’ Jon and the East Side Boyz, Kid Rock, and Linkin Park from now on, that would be just great, because there’s no way you could make those guys any worse anyway.
- Dominick Duhamel -
Tags: Rick Rubin, overproduction, ruining music, mp3