(Grand Royal/Capitol Records)
Along with Beck, the Beastie Boys have become the embodiment of postmodern music in the late '90s. The comparison goes beyond their shared use of the Dust Brothers or the perpetual ironic distance they both maintain, which allows them to simultaneously celebrate and parody pop's ridiculous past. Like Beck, the Beasties have passed through several musical movements, and it lends their work a command that strangely transcends any genre.
The Beasties began as sloppy hard-core punks before jumping on the rap bandwagon in 1983. With 1989's Paul's Boutique, they helped to take sampling into the realm of creative collage, and since then they've patented their own subtle combination of live instrumentation and sampling. It's a model that Beck took to even greater artistic heights with Odelay.
With Hello Nasty, the Beasties offer a murky, tongue-in-cheek treatise on technology and space exploration. As always, they effortlessly slip from the profoundly silly ("Sometimes I like to brag/Sometimes I'm soft-spoken/When I'm in Holland/I eat the pannenkoeken) to the simply profound ("Remote control to change the station/But that won't change your situation"). The Beasties may love machinery, but they know its limitations.
The album's most potent piece of social commentary comes with "Song for the Man," a slow, dreamy critique of male chauvinism, complete with barrelhouse piano and music-hall trombone. With this and the album's other highlights ("Intergalactic, "Body Movin'"), the Beasties create an eerie sense of futurism by inhabiting the campy world of early sci-fi flicks and arcane pop records. The salsa instrumental "Song for Junior" and the acoustic ballad "I Don't Know" also suggest a welcome infatuation with Latin rhythms.
As with all Beasties albums, Hello Nasty is padded out with some tired filler ("Three MC's and One DJ") that make you wish they were tighter self-editors. But it's also loaded with the kind of smart, giddy eclecticism you won't find anywhere else--unless it's on a Beck album.
In Search of the Lost Riddim
It's hard to think of a less appreciated major musical figure than Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin. It seems that every time Jamaican music made a significant turn, Ranglin was a part of it, albeit hiding in the shadows. He played on the seminal "Shuffling Jug," often cited as the first-ever ska record. He also handled the fretwork on Millie Small's "My Boy Lollilop," the record that brought ska to an international audience. He later arranged the early, influential hits by the legendary Wailers. In the mid-'70s, when Jimmy Cliff was at the height of his post-The Harder They Come stature, Ranglin toured with Cliff as part of his band. Yet Ranglin's name tended to get lost when the accolades were handed out.
More recently, the 66-year-old Ranglin has reverted back to his first love--smooth, melodious, Charlie Christian-inflected jazz. In Search of the Lost Riddim, however, is an altogether quirkier and richer affair. For this album, Ranglin ventured to Senegal, seeking the rhythmic source of the various forms of music he's been drawn to over the years. The result is a percussive, largely instrumental album that burrows its head deep into the groove and never comes up for air.
Certainly, in the hands of a lesser artist, In Search of the Lost Riddim could have come off as a gimmicky indulgence. But Ranglin's inherent musical intelligence and fluid guitar chording create a seamless mix in which you're never sure where the Senegalese touches end and the Jamaican touches begin. Particularly inspiring is "Wouly," a new arrangement of a traditional tune featuring the impassioned elastic wailing of 14-year-old singer Cisse Diamba. On this track, and on much of this fine album, Ranglin creates a true musical fusion: one that doesn't dilute its powerful sources, but instead broadens their cultural and artistic scope.
Fake Can Be Just As Good
(Touch and Go)
With Blonde Redhead's third and latest release, the international trio seems to be mocking its critics' accusations of unoriginality. The group's music has been written off dozens of times as Sonic Youth-inspired echoes of sounds already heard. But Blonde Redhead, starring the native Japanese Kazu Makino and the Italian Pace twins, has much more to offer than most critics have claimed, and its newest album seethes with fresh ideas.
There's no denying that Blonde Redhead owes some inspiration to Sonic Youth. But the influence seems to be more in their philosophy of music, art and experimentation than their specific style. Stylistically, Blonde Redhead shares only Sonic Youth's sense of drama--romantic, subtle melodies mixed with chaotic, formless noise. On the whole, Blonde Redhead's songs are more structured, symmetrical and linear than those of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon.
The album begins with a collage of beckoning and haunting noises that lure the listener into the band's bizarre, dark and opium-altered world. In the almost punk-rock opener, "Kazuality," singer-guitarist Amadeo Pace sings disjointed phrases in his strangely unique tenor: "I want you . . . too shy . . . one time . . . one two . . . slow one . . . kiss one line . . . go ahead . . . get inside." The lyrics are written as the mind actually thinks, in a sort of passive stream of fragments and ideas to which words cannot be coherently attached. The entire album is written this way.
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The music works in much the same way as the lyrics. Each musical idea is seemingly disconnected from every other, but somehow it all fits into place. The most beautiful cut on the album is "Ego Maniac Kid," a sensuous lullaby that Kazu sings as though in a half-sleep, with the melodious syncopation spiraling downward chromatically until the song climaxes in a throaty and panting chorus.
The album hits a kind of peak with its final cut, "Futurism Vs. Passeism," a hard-driving instrumental jam. The guitars sound thick, melodic and busy, while the drums complement with tight syncopated rhythms. This bassless track is particularly reminiscent of Sonic Youth's instrumental tangents, but Amadeo has a vocal response ready for any sniping critics. "It's just the energy," he says, and of course, he's right.