Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ten Years Gone: Beastie Boys - Hello Nasty

This entry is part of an ongoing series in where I take a look back at landmark films and albums released 10 years ago.

You usually have to wait an eternity between Beastie Boys albums. Nowadays if you wait more than three years between albums, that's usually it for your career unless you have a Mariah-sized fanbase that will never go away. While the Beasties have had their fair share of success, they've never been at a Mariah level in terms of popularity, yet after a decade-plus in the industry, their albums still debut at #1.

Blame the quality of the music. Most of the consumers who supported them during their first-go-round, Licensed to Ill, abandoned ship after the wacky left-field samplefest of Paul's Boutique. It sold considerably less than their debut and they were one bad album away from falling into has-been territory. So what they did do? They only got weirder and it ended up paying off in the long run. Check Your Head saw them dust off their instruments and return to their hardcore punk roots and the following Ill Communication was filled with jazzy interludes, an unthinkable progression back in 1986. The multi-platinum success of those two albums solidified the Beastie Boys' status as commercial and critical faves that aren't afraid to experiment with their sound. Hello Nasty permanently etched that status into stone.

Paul's Boutique will more than likely end up being the crown jewel of the Beastie discography, with very good reason, but Hello Nasty shows there's no shame in being the runner-up. It's a non-stop crash course in eclecticism (heh heh) that's as fun to listen to as it is to dissect. The hip hop tracks, no surprises here, are the strongest of the bunch. In typical Beasties style, these are more hip hop suites then they are songs. "The Move" is a dizzying blend of scratches, drum machines gone berserk, a calypso/hip hop mash-up and what I think is a 18th century European waltz of some sort. "Electrify" starts off with a string heavy sample and ends like one of The Breeders' softer tracks.

And it goes on and on to the point where you wonder if there was a Ritalin shortage in the studio. There is a joy to the way these tracks are arranged though. The whole kitchen sink strategy used by the Beastie Boys and their fellow producer, Mario Caldato, Jr. is prevalent on nearly every song. It feels as if there was no idea too silly nor any sample too ludicrous. What it does is make each listen all the more rewarding. While it is true that there is a lot going on in Hello Nasty's thick layers of sound and sound bites, the ideas always feel fresh and with a motivation to please the listener as well as the artists. Listening to the laugh at the end of the Talouse Latrec joke in "The Move" feels as essential to the song as does the driving bass line after about a hundred listens. I feel that way about many more similar moments throughout the album.

Come to think of it, I think the term "kitchen sink" applies to Hello Nasty in general. They really do throw just about everything at you. There had been interludes and instrumentals on previous albums, but nothing as divergent, surprising and sincere as the alternative ballad "I Don't Know", the cha cha cha-flavored "Song For Junior" or the somber "Instant Death". Despite having these songs on a hip hop album, they never really halt the flow. The loopiness of the preceding tracks pretty much prepare the listener for any and every thing. The whole thing should be a mess, to be honest. You look at the descriptions of the songs on paper and your first thought is probably "This is gonna be one sloppy album." But even with some of the weaker tracks like "Dedication" and "Dr. Lee, Ph.D", Hello Nasty remains one of the most cohesive albums I have ever heard. It's all over the place, but so were their previous three albums. You are never getting just a simple collection of songs with a Beastie Boys album. You're getting just that: an album. The songs are held together by mood and quirky sound clips that keep your finger off the skip button. Hello Nasty was the best use of this practice since Paul's Boutique and one of the main reasons why I feel compelled to talk about it 10 years later.

The commercial success of the album was not surprising, but it is worth noting that an album this diverse and strange could move close to 700,000 units in its opening week. In a way, its #1 debut was a relative small victory for the Beck Hansens, Cibo Mattos and other alternative sample barons of the mid-90's. Their groundwork provided an environment where an album like Hello Nasty could be even more widely accepted. Keep in mind that this was the summer of 1998, which was mostly ruled by the Armaggedon soundtrack, if memory serves correctly. The alternative era would officially come to an end with the mainstream succes of Korn and Limp Bizkit, thus leaving consumers with fewer choices to get their eclectic fix. An even more telling fact is that it would be five years before we would get a #1 debut album that was arguably as forward thinking and diverse as Hello Nasty: Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. I blame the quality of the music.

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