Original-recipe Rage was one of the greatest live acts of the past decade, and its handful of recordings over that period had plenty of juice in them, too -- but there was always the sense that these guys needed to seriously loosen up. They've been called "the American Clash" so many times that if the person who coined the phrase way back when had trademarked it, he could buy and sell Bill Gates today. But the British Clash offset its working-class salvos and lefty screeds with tunes like "Brand New Cadillac" that were more about raising hell than raising consciousness, whereas the Ragers -- lead bellower Zack de la Rocha, guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk -- seemed certain that if they ever recorded a song about something less weighty and important than child labor in China they'd lose their credibility faster than you can say "Milli Vanilli."
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All of which makes Renegades, the Rage swan song for de la Rocha (his former mates say they'll carry on without him), a fine way to appreciate what was best about the band without having to stumble over those demon reservations. A collection of covers produced with blessed simplicity and maximum edginess by Rick Rubin, the album draws from oodles of artists associated with the protest tradition, including Bruce Springsteen (the inspired "The Ghost of Tom Joad," cut with Brendan O'Brien several years back) and the MC5 ("Kick Out the Jams," heard in two different, equally effective versions). But there are also plenty of occasions when the social tenor of the material is far less clear cut than the stuff the four Rage members came up with on their own. The opener -- Eric B and Rakim's landmark "Microphone Fiend" -- is mainly about MC boasting, and while it gives de la Rocha a fine excuse to spit out loads o' anger, it also puts him in the position of rapping the words "you silly rabbit," which seems to do him a world of good. The same can be said of Afrika Bambaataa's brilliant "Renegades of Funk," a track that name-drops Malcolm X and Martin Luther King yet avoids deteriorating into a laundry list of causes. And gangsta jams such as Volume 10's "Pistol Grip Pump" and Cypress Hill's "How I Could Just Kill a Man" prove that the players can be politically incorrect if they put their minds to it. Who knew?
Still, even with the end in sight, these guys couldn't bring themselves to display any humor. Their faces remain straight throughout a hushed treatment of Devo's "Beautiful World," which in its first incarnation was notably snide (and is now, astonishingly enough, the backdrop for a Target commercial), and they fail to take any delight in the witty wordplay that the young Bob Dylan crammed into "Maggie's Farm" -- if de la Rocha realizes that the line "His bedroom window, it is made out of bricks" is sorta funny, he keeps it to himself. But the smart, powerful arrangements, Morello's inventive, eviscerating guitar, the assaultive rhythm section and de la Rocha's passionate barking more than compensate for any shortage of grins. On Renegades, the Machine hits on all cylinders. Too bad it's headed back to the shop.