Thursday, November 24, 2011

Beastie Boys: Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (2011)



There've been harsh words in this space recently toward stalwarts Paul Simon and R.E.M.; it's not an intentional motif, but what does it take for an aging, past-peak band to win me over? Well, the quickest possible way is probably to rhyme "Excedrin" with "Tippi Hedren," as the Beastie Boys do on their deliriously fun eighth album (counting The Mix-Up). I'm not even what you would call a Beastie Boys fan, really; they show up on my lists of crucial artists primarily because of Paul's Boutique and, I suppose, a smattering of their hit singles. Paul's stands far enough above the rest of their output that I confess I don't really listen to the rest of their albums often at all.

One of the issues I have with the Beasties is that I've never been fully convinced of the validity to any of their incarnations -- as a hardcore band, I think they're laughable. As rappers, I think they're engaging but scarcely deserving of the mantle of hip hop luminaries that seems to have been elevated for them. And going further back to the machismo-spoofing joke that was their original motif, well, I'll get in trouble here but while I am fully convinced it was a joke, I'm not entirely sure the group and Rick Rubin particularly wanted their massive growing throngs of fans at the time to realize it was. The Dust Brothers were the outside force that transformed such commercial calculation into something human and head-spinning, and it must be said that even Paul's Boutique, brilliant as it is, isn't on a level with 3 Feet High and Rising or the first two Tribe albums -- and yet it curiously seems to be mentioned far more often. Couldn't possibly have anything to do with gasp race, could it?

But something's happened to this band over the years that's led me to admire, if not their music, certainly their integrity and compassion. No one who saw the 1998 Video Music Awards in which the Beasties were given some silly lifetime achievement trophy will forget the moment when MCA, apropos of nothing about the group's "career" or "videos," threw a passionate plea against stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists across the MTV airwaves. Upon winning an award for "Intergalactic" a year later, Ad-Rock took to the podium to thrash his peers for the look-the-other-way attitude toward the sexual assaults that had taken place at Woodstock earlier that summer.

You don't necessarily hear things like this in their music. It's still silly and aloof, for the most part; only the 1998 record Hello Nasty really suggested much deep-down emotion or activism. On Hot Sauce Committee, however, one thing you do hear is cancer. MCA was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in one of his salivary glands in 2009, the chief reason this record wasn't finished or issued two years ago. He beat it fairly easily, as far as the public knows, and maybe it's my imagination, but I feel I can hear a beautiful weakening in his husky voice on this album -- a defiance and determination against mortality that makes all of his verses strangely affecting. That alone would make Hot Sauce Committee enough of a curiosity to be worth hearing.

But luckily, the thing don't stop -- it's lighthearted, goofy dance music that's both well-produced and impressively ill in its oldschool persuasions. The crunchy, scratch-funk sonics suit the group well and are appreciably quaint. Even if no one else in the mainstream seems to be aspiring to the traditional Grandmaster Flash sound these days, that music is as relevant as ever and the Beasties are willing to mine it with their ample skill, even if they continue to suffer from limited imagination. So there's nothing new here but if you really object to insistent earworms like "Nonstop Disco Powerpack," the towering "Crazy Ass Shit," and the convincingly pop radio-friendly "Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win," you think too damn much, man.

The whole album is consistent, fun from beginning to end, without any pacing lags or slow moments like those that have marred nearly all of the Beastie Boys' LPs since Check Your Head or so. It contains no breakout pop skull-smashing moments -- even the deathly boring To the 5 Boroughs had the delightful "Ch-Check It Out" -- so I can't really call it their best work since Paul's Boutique, but it's certainly their first record in twenty-odd years that doesn't feel padded out, coming in at a delightfully conservative forty-four minutes. It's enough of a party that you might even turn the record over and start over when it's done.

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