Beastie Boys

By Silja J.A. Talvi
Published July 15, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In 1986, three wildly energetic young Jewish punks made rap history with "Licensed to Ill," a loud and unapologetically adolescent album that still ranks as one of the bestselling albums in the U.S. But after their funky, doped-up "Paul's Boutique" in 1989, and the more instrumental and spiritual releases "Check Your Head" (1992) and "Ill Communication" (1994), it was hard to guess where the Beasties -- MCA, Ad-rock and Mike D -- were headed. Evidently, the trio was headed to the outer dimensions of Beastiedom: Back in '86, the cover of "Licensed" featured a smashed-up airplane; in '98, the foldout CD cover of "Nasty" displays a specially designed Beastie space station.

Positive and upbeat throughout, "Hello Nasty" is nothing if not unpredictable. On several songs ("Super Disco Breakin," "Just a Test" and "Three MC's and One DJ"), the Beasties return to a slower, hollering rap style that is more reminiscent of "Licensed" than of their more recent albums. In fact, old school is king on this album in many ways -- "Body Movin'" is bound to become a new hit among break dancers everywhere -- although the modern engineering feats (courtesy of co-producer Mario Caldato Jr.) and sampling techniques offer a much more polished sound than anything they did in the mid-'80s. Intelligent instrumentals also play a prominent role, with tracks like "Sneakin' Out of the Hospital" and the beautiful "Song for Junior."

Just when you think you've got it all figured out, the Beasties start launching musical meteors from the galaxy that they call home: "I Don't Know" actually features one of the Beasties singing along with Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori (doing soothing background vocals this time around); "Electrify" stretches hip-hop boundaries by weaving in classical music samples from The Firebird Suite; and "Dr. Lee, Ph.D." features none other than legendary reggae producer Lee "Scratch" Perry singing what seems to be a strange new version of the Wailers' brilliant but relatively obscure "Mr. Brown," in which Perry affectionately refers to his new friends as the "Beastly Boys." Even longtime Beastie fans will be scratching their heads for a good long while trying to figure this album out. That seems to be exactly the kind of reaction that those beastly boys wanted.

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-->BY MARK ATHITAKIS | Lacking any sort of solemn appreciation of Hank Williams, or any of the studied, moody ironies that got "No Depression" acts on college radio, all that BR5-49 have to offer is a sense of fun. Taking their cue from the upbeat twang of George Jones and Johnny Horton, the 14 songs on the Nashville quintet's second album honor tradition without being too smart about it, gleefully stomping through "18 Wheels and a Crowbar," swinging through "Out of Habit" or pouring real tears into "My Name is Mudd" and "Pain, Pain Go Away."

The covers -- Buck Owens' "There Goes My Love" and Billy Joe Shaver's "Georgia on a Fast Train" -- work both as bookends and guideposts. They're there to show just how well the band's originals can keep up, songs that were perfected during their notorious four-hour concerts. Vocalists Chuck Mead and Gary Bennett handle the authenticity: They both ease perfectly into juke-joint twang and weary laments. But it's the energy of the music itself, particularly Donnie Herron's smart playing on fiddle, mandolin and guitar, that gives it a kick that's harder than most genre exercises. No new truths reveal themselves though BR5-49's hard-swinging fury -- they're lost in a world that Johnny Cash mapped out decades ago. But because they know that world better than most, on "Big Backyard Beat Show" they both honor history and preserve it, and have a good time all the while. Truly -- no depression.

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Baaba Maal
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Ernest Ranglin
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BY BANNING EYRE | Senegal's Baaba Maal is one of the most talented and dynamic pop musicians anywhere, but he's not a god. Three years of laboring with celebrated British producers, including Brian Eno, and a host of diverse collaborators has resulted in a puzzlingly flat record, "Nomad Soul." Whether it's Afro-Celtic stylings from producer Simon Emmerson, quirky atmospherics from Eno, preachy lyrics of Jamaica's Luciano or pretty English-language choruses from Siniad O'Connor's backup singers, the collaborators seem to hold Maal back, not push him forward. Track after track, Maal's vocal is the best thing we hear, and the tepid offerings of others make the extraordinary seem strangely banal. The best tracks are "Koni," a mostly acoustic gem, and two punchy techno-house numbers engineered and programmed by Ron Aslan (Raw Stylus). Afropop is all about experimentation, but Maal should chock this one up to experience, get back into the studio with his own musicians and pull out the jams!

Lest anyone doubt that there's magic to be had that way, guitarist Ernest Ranglin's "In Search of the Lost Riddim," recorded in Dakar with help from Maal and his musicians, sparkles with the spontaneity missing on "Nomad Soul." (These are the two debut releases from Chris Blackwell's new label, Palm Pictures. Blackwell left Island last year and he's been sewing harmonious links between two countries he loves, Senegal and Jamaica.) An architect of ska and reggae, Ranglin has a genius for finding common ground. His spirited, rickety jazz lines weave together ska and Senegalese rhythms with breathtaking ease. Tracks like "Pili Pili" and "Anna" find Ranglin breezing through the idiosyncratic flow of kora (21-string harp) melodies. Vocal contributions by Maal and his longtime musical companion, Mansour Seck, are radiant here. Off the wall, but totally unpretentious, this global back-porch jazz delivers the goods.

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Shirley Horn
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BY EZRA GALE | At first glance, singer and pianist Shirley Horn's "I Remember Miles" seems like an odd tribute to the legendary trumpeter Miles Davis. Only one of the nine tunes is a Davis original, and the rest were originally Broadway show tunes that Davis recorded on his late '50s/early '60s albums. But the depth of this electrifying collection of ballads and of Horn's affection for Davis are immediately apparent. Whether by design or by coincidence, she sings like he played -- her phrasing is short and eloquent, her tone is lush and her embellishments never stray too far from the point. On a gorgeous version of "My Funny Valentine" and on the gently swinging "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'," it sounds as though Horn is threading her way through the melody just as Davis might.

It doesn't hurt that bassist Ron Carter and drummer Al Foster, who appear on half the tracks, were both longtime associates of Davis, and that trumpeter Roy Hargrove plays in such a Davis-inflected manner -- especially when he plays the muted trumpet on "I Fall In Love Too Easily" -- that it's almost spooky. Horn's piano playing is perfect as well. On the haunting version of "This Hotel," she accompanies herself with beautiful results.

But it's the 10-minute version of "My Man's Gone Now," recorded by Davis on 1958's "Porgy and Bess" but played here with his electric arrangement from 1981's "We Want Miles," that is the album's centerpiece. With Carter and Foster augmented by Horn's regular rhythm section of bassist Charles Ables and drummer Steve Williams, the tune takes on an airy, expansive, almost free-floating feel, with Horn's gorgeous vocals sailing and searching above it all. It's a startling moment -- ambitious, different and yet somehow utterly true to Gershwin's original melody. It's exactly as Miles would have loved it.

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BY MARK ATHITAKIS | Though little more than a fans-only 'tween-album stopgap, "Rhinoplasty" -- 50 minutes long, but priced as an EP -- at least provides reassurance that |ber-bassist Les Claypool's obsessions run a bit deeper than his band's original works suggest. Setting aside the oblique tributes to King Crimson, Rush and Frank Zappa that mark Primus' originals, the assembled covers take aim at the more pretentious corners of straight rock and pop: XTC's "Scissorman," Metallica's "The Thing That Should Not Be," the Police's "Behind My Camel," Peter Gabriel's "The Family and the Fishing Net." Claypool does little to expand on them, however, though the band humbly makes room on occasion for more of his slap-happy, watery bass playing.

But unlike most tech-mag cover stars, Claypool does understand the value of song structure as it relates to fretboard pyrotechnics. His take on Stanley Clarke's "Silly Putty" has as much pure groove as it does flashy technique, and his cowpunk Jerry Reed cover is played with an admirable lack of filigree, probably because Claypool knows that country western doesn't lend itself to funkiness. Still, the two original live tracks thrown in as bait are dull, unrestrained jam-rock and instrumental showcases, and Claypool is a bit too insistent on proving just what a freewheeling musical nutcase he is. Better proof of his talents on that end is elsewhere; there's nothing particularly funky about fulfilling a contractual obligation.

Silja J.A. Talvi

Silja J.A. Talvi is a freelance journalist and essayist. She received a 2005 PASS award for her feature on the impact of "three strikes" sentencing in Washington state and is an 11-time winner of regional awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. She is working on a book about women in prison.

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