To quote a very wise Montrose Radio DJ from a show a few weeks back, "Hip-hop in '98 is so garbage."
Admit it -- you'd rather listen to Mix 96.5 than be subjected to another obscenely dull Puff Daddy track. The most exciting and inventive artist in Puffy's camp is dead. Last year's Wu-Tang double album displayed the skills but was musically subpar and long-winded. The best hip-hop track I've heard on the radio lately? Run-DMC's 30-second spot for the Gap. Face it -- these are very ugly times.
Thank the spiritual figure of your choice for the arrival of the Beastie Boys' new album. The B-Boys have been a pillar of consistency since Paul's Boutique and just when we needed a good hip-hop album to land on the shelves, they have delivered.
As you may have already heard, this is not the best Beastie Boys album. Some tracks fall a little flat ("Song for the Man", "Instant Death"), and some even annoy ("And Me"). But the energy remains in tact, as does the spirit of innovation. What this album represents as its base is the joining of old-school beats and rhymes with the latest musical technology. In addition, the influences of Grand Royal bands on the Beasties is obvious and, for the most part, used to the utmost advantage.
One pleasant surprise is the introduction of a creepier sound on "Sneakin' Out the Hospital" and "Flowin' Prose". This is one of the sure signs of maturity on this album. Maturity, however, has not ruined the Beasties' party instinct, and the evidence is here ("Super Disco Breakin'", "The Move", "Body Movin'"). It contains the purest form of Beasties energy, and it sounds fresh and original (even taking into account the uncanny similarity of the beats and rhyme scheme in "The Grasshopper Unit" to those in Busta Rhymes' "Dangerous").
Again, this album may display some weaknesses. But in the barren landscape of Hip-Hop '98, it's a revelation. And it's all a matter of perspective anyway, isn't it? (JD)
(Grand Royal/Capitol Records)
Bentley Rhythm Ace
The name of the game is "electronica," kids, and anybody who wants to can play, even politically-minded indie-rockers the Poster Children (aka Salaryman), ex-Bark Psychosis frontman Graham Sutton (aka Boymerang), or half of Pop Will Eat Itself (aka Bentley Rhythm Ace). The cool thing about these relative novices of the techno scene, though, is that they sometimes do things in ways people like Orbital or DJ Shadow wouldn't necessarily think of -- and in an age where the most popular techno-type stuff that's thrown at the masses is dark, angry stuff like The Prodigy, it's a refreshing change to see that folks like Daft Punk and Bentley Rhythm Ace are managing to do their thing and keep their senses of humor intact.
In terms of sound, the BRA guys throw everything up to and including the kitchen sink into the mix -- there's goofy samples from Hindu-sounding cartoons, tap dancing, raw electronic noise, flutes, frantic scratching, and loads of fiercely fucked-with basslines, all combining to make some of the funkiest, funniest, most layered noise you'll ever hear. It's hard to pick a favorite track, really, 'cause they're all so damn good, but the ones I seem to hit the repeat button most on are the rough, crunching groove of "Midlander (There Can Be Only One)," the appropriately dark movie theme-like "Ragtopskodacarchase," and the cool, spastic grooves of "On Her Majesty's Secret Whistle" (which, incidentally, is a track only on the American version of the album, along with "Spy Who Loved Moose"). Damn funky shit. (JH)
Tastes Like Chicken
Sometimes albums like this bug me, I'll admit -- the multitalented folks who comprise Bone Simple (primarily 2 guys, Ruel Russell & Bob Wall, plus whatever friends they could drag into the studio) never stick to a style for more than two songs, and that can get a bit wearing. They leap from the quiet pop of "All Become You" straight into the straight-ahead ska of "Hard To Take," and then take a hard right turn into art-pop-funk land for "Think About Trash." It gets hard, after a while, to pin the band down to a particular "sound," because everything's continually moving and shifting.
At points it even feels like there are two bands on here, each alternating songs -- there's a darn good ska band, and they kick out the Bim Skala Bim-influenced "Shameless Shadows and Tears" (one of my favorites on the album) and the 2-Tone-styled "Just A Rude Boy" and "Tender Kisses," among others. However, there's also a heavily '80s-influenced pop band, paying homage to people like the Talking Heads (the quirky, almost Oingo-Boingo-sounding "Sentimental Moments"), Peter Gabriel (the quieter, beautiful parts of "Drink 4 More"), Devo (the trapped-in-the-machine stomp of "Ones And Zeros"), and even Springsteen or The Pogues (the melancholy, countryish "Rag Around My Eyes"). To be honest, I think I like the pop stuff more than the ska, but even still, it's like there's a battle going on between the two halves of the band.
In spite of all the above, good or bad, I like this a HELL of a lot. The songs are catchy and well-written -- I just can't get 'em out of my head -- and they sound absolutely amazing (no mean feat, considering the whole thing was recorded at Russell & Wall's home studio). There are all these tiny little touches throughout the album, little bits of backing vocals or random sounds of some kind, that totally stun me every time I listen to this. These folks are good, and the songs are, too. Even the lyrics do pretty well -- hard to believe anybody could ever pull off the phrase "I'm tired of the guys you're pokin'" in a fairly serious song (the Judybats-esque "All Become You"), but somehow Messrs. Russell & Wall & co. make it work and not sound stupid or cheesy. Despite the constant game of stylistic musical chairs, the whole album holds together in much the same way, and believe me, it works.
I guess confusion's what I get for coming into this with some preconceptions -- Russell and Wall used to be members of ska bands Slow Children and St. Vitus Dance (Russell's still a member of St. Vitus, and a lot of the other folks in the band guest on here), so I figured, okay, this is gonna be ska, right? So, as you might guess from the above, when I heard songs like the Sting-goes-indie-rock "You're Just So Special," the pseudo-joke- country of "Hangin' Fire Love," and the rest, I was totally thrown for a loop. My advice: just listen to the album, and then figure it out for yourself. (JH)
(RaW Productions -- P.O. Box 27074, Houston, TX. 77227-7074)
Billy Bragg & Wilco
Whoa. Nora Guthrie deserves a medal just for thinking this up, I swear... Way back before your & my time, Woody Guthrie wrote lyrics for thousands of unfinished songs, the music for which existed only in his head -- and when he died, it was all lost. So for the last thirty or so years since Woody's death in 1967, all these songs have existed solely as words on scraps of paper, with no actual music to accompany them, at least 'til now. One of my all-time heroes, Billy Bragg, has found in Wilco & co-conspirator Natalie Merchant the perfect bunch of musicians to try to recreate these songs, and together they've created some of the most perfect, most heartfelt music I've ever heard.
I'll flatly admit that I don't know a damn thing about Woody Guthrie, honestly, other than what I'm now reading in this album's liner notes, but these songs are so beautiful and poignant (and at times silly -- see "Hoodoo Voodoo" for what I mean; it sounds like the Beatles fucking around in the studio). The barebones sadness of "Birds and Ships" contrasts sharply with the rowdy drunken rambling of "Walt Whitman's Niece" and the countryish labor song "I Guess I Planted", and it all somehow fits together, held as one piece of work by Woody Guthrie's words. A classic album dropped through a crack in the universe to show up fifty or so years out of its time. (JH)
The Brian Jonestown Massacre
Give It Back!
Whoa...it's like the Sixties never ended, maaan...hey; pass the hookah... No, seriously, this album is way retro-ish psychedelic rock, sounding like it time-traveling from that fabled decade to ours with rose-colored John Lennon glasses on. I don't know enough about psychedelic music to cite any influences very accurately, but lots of this sounds very Beatlesque to me, especially the bits with the spaced-out sitars in "Super-Sonic" and "Salaam"... They also come very close to ripping off the Byrds' "Feel A Whole Lot Better" with "This Is Why You Love Me," get really cool and majestic on "Whoever You Are" and "Sue" (one of my particular favorites), and then break out the harmonicas for the countryish "(You Better Love Me) Before I Am Gone" and "Malela". It's mostly pretty slow 'til the fast-paced "Not If You Were The Last Dandy on Earth" -- just about the right speed to lean back and space out to. This doesn't absolutely blow me away or anything (I'm more of a Spiritualized man, myself, when it comes to this sort of thing), but stuff like "Dandy," "Super-Sonic" and "The Devil May Care (Mom & Dad Don't)" are definitely cool with me. (JH)
(Bomp Records/Tangible -- P.O. Box 7112, Burbank, CA. 91510)