Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Album Review: Beastie Boys - "Hot Sauce Committee Part Two"

Let's get this out of the way early: I'm as happy as you are that the Beastie Boys are back. From the probably not ironic party-hardy Licensed to Ill to arguable creative high water mark Paul's Boutique and on to their latter years, where they alternated between a groovy Boho jazz sound and attempts to recapture the clowning atmosphere of their biggest hits, the Beastie Boys have remained cultural fixations, if not always for the music they were recording at that moment. Adam Yauch (MCA), Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock), and Michael Diamond (Mike D) have consistently displayed a laudable willingness to make their fans happy, either by touring incessantly, releasing fan-shot live DVDs, or offering post-modern takes on their greatest hits. And the Boys have done all of this while still exorcising their creative demons, continually putting out albums that pushed their signature sound forward in one way or another.

Their new material, however creatively satisfying it must have been to record, hasn't always been all that much fun to listen to. 1998's Hello Nasty was probably the last time the band really captured the attention of the wider public, and the monster-movie sonic pranksterism of "Intergalactic" deserves all the accolades it's received.

The best one can say about the Beastie Boys' late-period material is that they don't sound like they're going through the motions. A cursory listen to their last proper album, 2004's To the 5 Boroughs, might've left you with the impression that the band had recaptured their former glory. Sound-wise, the album managed to channel the insane sample casserole of Paul's Boutique without arousing the ire of every music publisher on Earth. (It just sounded like they were using a shitload of samples.) Lyrically, though, the album felt a bit tired. Though the Boys sounded righteously indignant on album centerpiece "An Open Letter to NYC," they sounded more like three unmistakably talented veterans goofing off at their home studios.

So when I heard that the long-delayed Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 1 would finally be released as Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, I proceeded with caution.

Was my wariness warranted? Or should this old horse just stop saying neighs?

Unfortunately, I was probably right not to get my hopes up. Hot Sauce Committee Part Two does manage to push the Beastie Boys' sound forward ever-so-slightly, but it doesn't shake off the lyrical somnambulance of To the 5 Boroughs.

Yeah, the Beasties sound like they're having fun, and that's truly a relief after Yauch was diagnosed with glandular cancer in summer of 2009. Yauch has since made a full recovery, and the guys sound glad to have him back.

But just as watching people having fun on film isn't actually fun (otherwise, Entourage would be Party Down), listening to people playing around on record isn't a bucket of yuks either. I'd deliver a searing polemic against jam bands here, but I now know better than to insult subgenres with dedicated fanbases.

Musically, the album sends the Beasties wandering through 311-ish (yep) hazes of watery electronics and processed vocals. Said haze is sometimes more vaguely sinister than other times, but nothing really sticks out, except for the reggae-tinged "Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win" and "Too Many Rappers," which sounds convincingly sinister and features a blazing turn from Nas.

Best. Passover. Ever.
"Rappers" is really the only track that works up a convincing groove, as the dark-room synths lock into the Mike D's boom-bap drum pattern sublimely. Elsewhere, the band essentially mashes together the big beat electronics (popularized by Fatboy Slim and the Prodigy in the mid-nineties) with their charmingly clunky rhyming and hopes for the best. And that boom-bap drum pattern seems to be the only one Mike D can play. It gets old.

The result isn't exactly unfocused, but it's certainly samey. Sometimes the band tosses in an unexpected turn, like the 80's synthpop flourishes in "OK" or the electro-reggae of "Don't Play No Game." Mostly, though, the band over-relies on electronics, ostensibly to cover their lack of musical and lyrical ideas.

Lyrically, the band's on pretty familiar ground here. It's fun hearing them rap about being old-ass rappers ("I burn the competition like a flamethrower/My rhymes age like wine as I get older," MCA raps on "Make Some Noise"), but they offer a whole lot more posturing than insight. Here, the Beasties' lyrical observations don't go much deeper than what great rappers they are, and that's never been their strong suit. Right or wrong, I always saw the braggadocio they displayed on their prime material as something of a joke (who could take seriously a line like "I'm like Sam the Butcher bringing Alice the meat/Like Fred Flinstone driving around with bald feet"?).

It seems to be all they've got left though ("I sniff suckers out like a beagle"), and silly boasts work far better as asides than as the lyrical meat of the album. The whole thing sounds a bit too much like improv comedians pretending to rap, all "I'm here to say"s and "Back again"s.

Ad-Rock's still the nimblest emcee, tossing off a couplet like "Because I'm back with a bang boogie, oogie oogie/Strawberry letter 23 like Shuggie" without breaking a sweat. And there are a number of clever lines here (the profiterole in "Nonstop Disco Powerpack" is particularly nice), but none of it's as clever or imaginative as their prime material. Gone are the absurdist short stories and stream-of-consciousness insanity of Paul's Boutique and Ill Communication, replaced by tired-sounding boasts and sophomoric scatalogical humor ("Ad-Rock’s in the bathroom/Like chocolate fondue").

Like late-period records by the Stooges or (I daresay) Metallica, it's great to hear these guys plan again. But don't go deleting your copy of Licensed to Ill.