The key development in the life of this great American band came in 1989, when Mike Diamond, Adam Horovitz and Adam Yauch followed up their crunchy goof of a breakthrough platter, 1986's Licensed to Ill, with Paul's Boutique, an infinitely more forward-looking melange of rap, funk, soul, jazz and satirical mack daddy-isms. The CD, whose influence can be heard on Beck's Odelay and many other groovy long-players, opened up so many new possibilities for the main men that they've been exploring them ever since--and they're not done yet. As a result, Hello Nasty is less a departure from its immediate predecessors, 1992's Check Your Head and 1994's Ill Communication, than an extension of them. Under ordinary circumstances, that would be a bit of a drag: Think of the Ramones making the same album over and over again until even their fans started taking them for granted. But the raucousness of the precedings will come as a relief to cynics who feared that Yauch's involvement in the Free Tibet movement might turn the combo into Sting in triplicate, and anyone bored to tears by the sensitive singer-songwriter movement will be cheered as well. Not that the lads don't have moments of introspection: In "And Me," for example, Diamond croons the line "Once again, I'm all wrapped up in me" with unexpected earnestness. But instead of allowing this observation to stand alone, Mike and the Adams drench it in space burbles and other humorously outdated sonic futurism, then juxtapose it with a dialogue snippet in which someone wishes that he could play basketball outside in the rain and not get wet. Elsewhere, the Boys name-check with a vengeance (everyone from Chuck D to Kenny Rogers is referenced) and exercise their simile chops ("Like Don King/I've got the crazy hairdo") with an abandon that hasn't dimmed one lumen in a decade. They're equally dedicated to having fun musically, whether it means whipping out the robot tones on "Super Disco Breakin'" and the wonderfully cheesy single "Intergalactic" or dipping into dub on "Dr. Lee, PhD," which is built around a cameo by Lee "Scratch" Perry. Hell, even the stretching/filler that occupies a significant portion of the disc's second half (e.g., the Brooke Williams-warbled "Picture This" and "I Don't Know," a modified bossa nova) eventually clicks in. The CD won't change pop music as we know it, and if the Beasties clone it three years from now, the goodwill they continue to generate may dry up fast. But right now, Hello Nasty sounds swell. And that's what really matters, isn't it?
Eastern Standard Time
The current popularity of skacore underlines the continuing pliability of ska, which was invented in Jamaica 35 years ago. But other types of music lend themselves equally well to ska's shuffling backbeat. On Second Hand (issued by Beatville, a new subsidiary of RAS Records), Washington, D.C.'s Eastern Standard Time pays tribute to the musicianship and instrumentation of original ska bands like the Skatalites a la Hepcat and other groups associated with the form's third wave. But beneath the arrangements, these tunes are jazz--compositions by the likes of Thelonius Monk ("Bemsha Swing"), Charlie Parker ("Barbados") and Dizzy Gillespie ("Be Bop"). These choices aren't as radical as they might seem to some: Ska evolved from swing, itself a derivative of jazz. But even knowing about this lineage doesn't prepare you for how well Eastern Standard Time blends genres. The combination of ska toasting and jazz soloing works so well that the inclusion of such oddities as flugelhorn, accordion and harmonica don't sound out of place for an instant. The performers aren't playing either style of music for the first time, but they make Second Hand well worth a first listen.
Musically, the Godfrey Bros. and friends pit real instruments against DJ scratches and all the samples they can program, pulling hip-hop, trance-dance, reggae, soul balladry and electronic abrasion into an anonymity that initially seems all wrong. This post-everything group is still on to something, though. Fast and slow aren't real categories here--even the speedier playing is dragged into hang time--and neither Skye Edwards's best Neneh Cherry impersonations nor lyrics that sound like thinkin' aloud are consistently satisfying. But Morcheeba has the goods for all sorts of moods. I first played the CD for a living room full of neighbors, who remarked on the druggy reggae horns on "Friction," the bluesy/spacey guitars heard throughout "The Sea," the way a slide guitar and a pedal steel mix with growling synthesizer bass on "Part of the Process," and so on. By contrast, my second listen came when I was feeling tired, hoping for a pick-me-up; boy, was I ever surprised to wake up when it was over. So all I can say about Big Calm is: Take a shot. Favorite eclectic moment--the sitar and blues riffing on "Digging a Watery Grave."
In the Sun
As a founder of the Coctails, a current member of the Sea and Cake, a painter and a multi-instrumentalist, Archer Prewitt is rapidly becoming a Chicago institution--or, rather, a key player in a thriving scene that continues to amaze. Unfortunately, this recording is a lateral move at best. While In the Sun demonstrates his agility as a musician and a certain songwriter's presence, it lacks some of the more endearing qualities of the Sea and Cake. Moreover, Prewitt's vocals sometimes come across as a bit contrived and melodramatic. On "The Best Is Yet to Come," he conjures up the discomforting image of a Midwestern Peter Murphy, and the structures of several other songs are not as tight as listeners familiar with his past have come to expect. He shines on guitar, organ and bass, but the sound (frequently supplemented by string or horn sections) is perhaps overly expansive; the disc's last three cuts, which aurally invoke stagnant ponds, funeral processions and/or sleepwalking, ultimately collapse under their own weight. Far better are "Good Man," which weaves guitar lines every bit as artistic as the Sea and Cake's pop; the radiant "Rush Hour," on which Prewitt plays everything but drums; and "Leave It Gone," a nod to the refreshing summer feeling associated with Galaxy 500. (It's amazing what a simple, riffing chord change can do.) Sun is a promising solo debut, but it doesn't quite capture the peculiar and pleasing energy generated by the group dynamic.
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