Who would have thought it? The band responsible for a million misplaced Volkswagen badges producing one of 1994's more arresting and diverting albums? Strange but true, "Ill Communication" is that odd beast, a diverse rap album. The B-Boys touch all bases here: floorshaking and exhilarating, if traditional, rap attacks in "Sure Shot", "Root Down", "Sabotage" and "Get It Together", early Husker Du-esque hardcore punk ("Tough Guy" and the cruel but funny "Heart Attack Man"), and Seventies instrumentals that sound like they've just limped off the soundtrack of a Quentin Tarantino movie ("Sabrosa", "Ricky's Theme" and "Shambala"). Flutes, violins, MC Adam Yauch's acoustic basslines and an eclectic and obscure selection of samples find their way into the brew. "Ill Communication" is the finest, and strangely the subtlest, example of crash collision since The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu defined the genre with their swiftly deleted and subsequently much bootlegged "1987 (What The Fuck Is Going On?)" album, and as a boundary-trashing rap album it's up there with the debut works by De La Soul and Arrested Development. And how can I dislike any album that features the lyrics "I'm still listening to wax/I'm not using the CD"?!
BEASTIE BOYS Hello Nasty (Grand Royal/Capitol)
Its been a long time coming - nearly four years, in fact - but the fifth Beasties album is everything you dared expect of it and more: lush Latino interludes, the ramblings of a madman who, on closer inspection, turns out to be the missing-in-action dub genius Lee "Scratch" Perry, a couple of songs that are so nakedly emotional and untypical that youd almost think youve been slipped a Nick Drake album by mistake (well, almost), and the rapping robot on "Intergalactic". A first listen says "Hello Nasty" makes much of "Ill Communication" look drably monochromatic, and suggests its their best work after the fab "Pauls Boutique", the album Rolling Stone described as raps "Pet Sounds". Invest with confidence!BEASTIE BOYS Video Anthology (Criterion)
Criterion's enviable reputation for excellence in home video entertainment extends back into the mists of time when laserdiscs ruled (some parts of) the land. For their first foray into music DVDs they could scarcely have chosen more fruitful collaborators: like them or not, the Beastie Boys have spent much of the last decade chipping away at the boundaries of musical and visual expression, a trio of Buddhism-toting good guys whose lifestyle and art are about as diametrically opposite to that of the Volkswagen badge-pilfering bratty kids of tabloid myth as its possible to get whilst still operating within the same genre.
So this double disc "Video Anthology" is a thing of much wonderment. At the risk of rattling off like a commercial, you get eighteen videos (with the exception of the Hüsker Dü-esque hardcore of 1982's "Holy Snappers", all drawn from the "Paul's Boutique" and beyond), which you can watch accompanied with a bewildering array of remixes (including contributions from Bentley Rhythm Ace, Fatboy Slim and Moby) and video angles (up to nine in the case of the most elaborate productions, "Intergalactic" and "Alive"). There are also commentaries by band members and directors (usually somewhat less than insightful, but better to have than have not nevertheless), additional material such as the short film "The Robot Vs. The Octopus Saga" that accompanies "Intergalactic", photos, storyboards and live takes, subtitles and Dolby 5.1 surround sound mixes for those equipped to enjoy them. And a big double-sided poster of the cover art as a dealmaker. In terms of sheer bulk, and the amount of "things you can only do with DVD" whizz-bang cleverness, "Video Anthology" is about as good as the format gets, surpassing even the high watermark of Daft Punk's "D.A.F.T. A Story About Dogs, Androids, Firemen And Tomatoes". It took me all of eight hours to plough through this set in its entirety, after which you tend to be pretty sure whether or not you like the Beastie Boys.
And I do, so it was mostly a pleasure. You might grate at the amount of relatively uninspired performance video footage you're compelled to wade through, which even with the Beastie Boys visual inventiveness tends to come out a bit too samey, but such unworthy thoughts are quickly banished on encountering the big production numbers. "Intergalactic" features a giant robot piloted by the Beastie Boys in battle with a mutant Godzilla-like creation in a toytown reconstruction of a Tokyo thoroughfare, whilst "Three MCs And One DJ" follows their phonograph equestrian Mixmaster Mike along a New York street into their basement practice space to perform the song live. The highlight of the set is undoubtedly the Spike Jonze-directed "Sabotage": think "The Fast Show"'s fat sweaty coppers reinterpreted in the style of Dirk Diggler's "Boogie Nights" alter ego Brock Landers, larded up with just about every 70s American cop show cliché. Marvellous, and one of very few promotional videos distinctive enough to bear repeated viewing. Which is ultimately what sinks "Video Anthology" and video anthologies in general: very few artists have enough fantastic promo footage stashed away to make these kind of projects interesting outside the überfan community. It's a credit to the Beastie Boys that they come closer than most (R.E.M., Daft Punk, Radiohead and the Aphex Twin being others who are generally good at this sort of thing), but even so I suspect that future viewings will be restricted to the odd sneak of "Sabotage" rather than sitting down to enjoy the whole kit caboodle. Nevertheless, everybody involved has done their job in an exemplary fashion (picture and sound are as good as the source material allow them to be i.e. appropriately ropey on "Holy Snappers" and "Netty's Girl", excellent everywhere else), and "Video Anthology" is an undoubted landmark of sorts. Incidentally, as Criterion are as yet undistributed in the UK, you'll have to source a copy from America, a conundrum made happier by the fact that Criterion discs have no region coding, so they'll play on any DVD player and television anywhere, as long as its comfortable with NTSC material.
BEASTIE BOYS Paul’s Boutique (Capitol)
Any number of albums could lay claim to the dubious accolade of being rap’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, but the Beasties’ second platter, “Paul’s Boutique”, has a stronger case than most. Dating from a less litigious time, before the window of opportunity slammed shut on Biz Markie’s thieving fingers, the track “The Sounds Of Science” welds a drum loop from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” to the riff of “The End” (along with other, rather subtler, steals from “Back In The U.S.S.R.” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” that the internet clued me in on) 17 years ahead of the “Love” project. It’s an astonishing moment, barely conceivable when viewed from this end of the time trumpet. The packaging of “Paul’s Boutique” is totally unblemished by lists of the samples used; instead, entire websites have been built around the album, attempting to unpick its dense, intoxicating fabric of soul, funk and classic rock steals and blizzard of pop culture references. As with Lou Reed’s near-contemporaneous “New York”, this is the kind of album that deserves a CliffsNotes.
Fortunately, it’s not an album built around just one single song; the remainder of “Paul’s Boutique” is hardly anti-climactic. The Beasties’ three-handed raps are so relentless that the miniscule font required to fit the libretto onto the inner sleeve renders the lyric sheet near-unreadable. Those lyrics might not say much of earth-shattering significance – they’re not Public Enemy, after all - being chiefly concerned with the trio’s own braggadocio and misadventures, but the lightest grazing of political comment is at least a start. “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun” wields big drums and guitars alongside a piano chord sampled from the Floyd’s “Time” to create a heavier sound that would be developed further on later classics such as “Sabotage”, and half of the second side comprises an “Abbey Road” style multi-part medley, “B-Boy Bouillabaisse.
This 20th anniversary edition of “Paul’s Boutique” boasts of “audiophile quality” and “180 gram vinyl”, and of being “digitally remastered” and “faithfully restored”. Well, it sounds alright, although potential levels of sonic delight are glass-ceilinged by the album’s long sides. I also failed dismally to access the “free bonus audio band commentary” download promised by the cover sticker. However, the double gatefold sleeve, allowing the photograph of the corner of Manhattan’s Ludlow and Rivington Streets to unfold in all its panoramic glory, is fabulous.