The Beastie Boys
You know how Hollywood action blockbusters are all about the benjamins that got dished out for cutting-edge special effects? Well, the Beastie Boy's fifth record, Hello Nasty, has a whiff of that. Recorded and mixed over two-and-a-half years in seven different studios, then spewed out in a media blitz that included a half-hour infomercial, it's a sonic event that wants you to feel the bulge of its budget. Even the packaging (Digipak, deluxe gatefold sleeve) is phat like a wallet.
But the Beasties deserve some respect for their market savvy--their fight for their right to old Def Jam royalties, their Grand Royal label/zine empire and X-Large clothing-store chain. And anyway, music fans can choose their illusion; not so with the slim pickings at the mall's googleplex. In action movies the subtext is that the movie industry itself is a disaster running amok--a hurtling asteroid, a careening bus, a big-ass pack of dinosaurs, an evil gang of terrorists, whatever--doing some serious nonconsensual damage. Whereas Hello Nasty imagines itself as an interstellar funkmobile, a motherless mothership floating through the turbulence of showbiz on a mission of peace. The Beasties are on a simultaneous quest for interpersonal truth and a nostalgic electro hip-hop trip. And as "Body Movin'," one of the ace tracks co-written by longtime Beastie producer Mario Caldato, asks: "Tell me party people, is that so wrong?"
Well--not terribly. On the surface, what's important is that this album is slammin'. On the sublime side there's retro-digital planet rock (the single "Intergalactic"), gyroscopic funk ("Just a Test"), and kitchen-sink hip hop ("The Negotiation Limerick File"). On the ridiculous side, there's the Casio-core meets drum 'n' bass track "And Me" (one of Yauch's navel-gazing numbers) and the vapid Latin-lounge cut "I Don't Know" (ibid.). But there's no old thrash bullshit, and the Beasties' own forays into musicianship are kept to a minimum.
Not since Paul's Boutique have they dropped so much research into the mix, Ginsu-chopping already unidentifiable samples down to little matchsticks. Things get hotter when Mix Master Mike (of the SF DJ collective Invisibl Skratch Piklz--see "Ill Communicator," this issue) scratches and Money Mark Nishita lays down keyboard jingles. Perhaps there are too many cooks, though, since the vocal cameos from Jill Cunniff (Luscious Jackson), Brooke Williams, Miho Hatori (Cibo Matto), and Lee "Scratch" Perry come off as mere garnish.
Hello Nasty radiates sweetness and light compared to 1994's bloated Ill Communication. Even so, there's a dark side. The boys sometimes work out the tension in jittery caffeinated jams, but just as often wreck the buzz in some warped fashion or another. The first seven tracks pump pleasure and pain like a Viagra heart attack, but still feel like an out-of-body experience. Take the aptly named "Remote Control," where the very Beastie killer guitar riff sounds like it's been sent in by low-speed modem. And the robotic vocals on "Body Movin'" reverberate off a faraway wall of steel drums. Add more angst than you'd get in a yearlong freshman poetry seminar, and you've got a party gone out of bounds. On "Song for the Man" (a depraved ditty that recalls Blood, Sweat &Tears' "Spinning Wheel"), Adam Horovitz moans, "What makes this world so sick and evil?" "The Grasshopper Unit (Keep Movin')" hops along until someone (those Katzenjammer calls-and-responses of yore are becoming a little strained, and it's getting harder to tell Mike D and Ad-Rock apart) suddenly cries out, "Oh my my, I'm really not feeling it/Oh my my, something's really wrong." Say what?
Say Career Artists. And don't forget it, true believers, the juvie hall joiks of old have matured into a middle-aged institution. As such, the Boys have to go through the soul-searching bit: How did we get here? Where do we go next? The sardine tin they're snuggling in on the cover might stand in for the silver-plated cage of the entertainment industry, but it just as easily might represent the Boys spending way too much time together checking their own heads.
Spiritual journeys and real estate investments notwithstanding, the Beasties still seem genuinely confused, lost in the mosh pit. Like they're either the only people in the world who don't get the big picture, or the only people naive enough to think they can create their own little world within it. Half a century ago a more articulate team of Jewish expats in L.A., Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, made the point that when you think you're in on the joke, that's precisely when the culture industry has the last laugh on you. So maybe it's a good sign that the Beasties don't seem to get it; in any case, it's endearing.
One of the voices that pops up in between tracks offers this wistful koan: "I wish that there was some way that I could be outside playing basketball in the rain and not get wet. Now wouldn't that be great?" The Beastie Boys can't give up their earthly attachment to childhood toys: To them, Rosebud is a skateboard. After all, a common commercial past is what bonds the Nintendo Nation: As one lyric lays it out, "We're all connected like a Lego set." The Beasties' inability to divorce pseudo-mystical states of bliss (whether induced by religion, drugs, or music) from the perpetual clinging infancy of consumerism is a schizophrenia that's universal, but they put their own zany spin on it. Who else could send shout-outs to Toucan Sam and Gandhi in the same breath?
With all due props to Milarepa and the Freedom Concerts, Beastie Buddhism in practice means going with the flow of digital culture, relaxing and floating downstream, uncritically accepting the shape of things that have already come. Sure, they promise: "To try to change the world I will plot and scheme" (in "Intergalactic"). But they try to do it by living in their own private Tibet--pitching a small subcultural tent in the shelter of global capital, hawking their own line of baggy pants but bragging (in "Putting Shame in Your Game") "I won't sell my songs for no TV ad." Guess that disses their most recent influences, Stereolab, Tortoise, and Faust.
Guess that also forgets to add that selling songs to movies is okay by them: The In Sound From Way Out, the Beasties' 1995 instrumental acid jazz-funk sampler, was initially a promo-only item shopped as soundtrack fodder. When the work became a collector's item sought out by fans--and when no film-music supervisors snapped at the bait--it saw commercial release in 1996.
1996! A few lives ago in market time. Right about now, the new album's been out two whole weeks, the opening box-office receipts are in, and everyone who really cares has already programmed their CD player to spin their fave cuts. (Even though most tracks clock in at three minutes or less, 67 cumulative minutes of these crazy mixed-up files is all too much.) And in another bloat-related incident, kids are bitching on the Grand Royal chat page that when they pop the disc in their CD-ROM drive, everything crashes.
Which is actually kind of cool--as if the band in absentia is finding yet another way to say, "stop the world, I wanna get off." And anyway, according to the official Beasties Web site, if the CD-ROM works properly, you get linked to...the official Beasties Web site. If you're a denizen of Planet Beastie, what goes around comes around.
The Beastie Boys play August 10 at the Target Center; call 989-5151 (Ticketmaster).
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