Saturday, December 28, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1329: Beastie Boys

The end of the year is here and with it – the tradition of making Top 10 lists!

I listened to all or portions of around 150 albums released in 2019. Of the ones that held my attention sufficiently to survive a full listen, I purchased 52. 14 more are still on my ‘to get’ list. Of those 66 ‘shelf-worthy” efforts, here are the ones that tickled my fancy the most in 2019 in ascending order of awesome.

10. The Hu – Gereg
9. Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
8. Josh Ritter – Fever Breaks
7. J.S. Ondara – Tales of America
6. Jenny Lewis – On the Line
5. Jens Lekman and Annika Norlin – Correspondence
4. Molly Tuttle – When You’re Ready
3. Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold
2. Better Oblivion Community Center – Self-Titled
1. Mattiel – Satis Factory

Honourable mention (i.e. on the list if I had done a Top 15): The Pixies – Beneath the Eyrie, Snotty Nose Rez Kids – Trapline, Caamp – By and By, Hayes Carll – What it is, Evan Bartels – Promised Land

Disc 1329 is… Ill Communication
Artist: Beastie Boys

Year of Release: 1994

What’s up with the Cover? I always think this guy looks like Jake from the Blues Brothers. As we know, the Blues Brothers initially felt sufficiently equipped with a full tank of gas, a half pack of cigarettes and sunglasses. However, after a couple hours on the road they got hungry and had to stop at a drive-through for some takeout.

This cover also speaks to the ‘ill communication’ that can occur while trying to record your takeout order through one of those squawk boxes. The Beastie Boys will make the device more useful for rapping than it ever was in procuring Jake and Elwood a cheeseburger.

How I Came to Know It: Like everyone else, I saw the video for the single “Sabotage” and it went from there.

How It Stacks Up:  I have seven Beastie Boys albums. I used to have nine, but a few years ago I parted ways with their two instrumental numbers. Of the seven remaining, “Ill Communication” comes in at #5.

Ratings: 3 stars

“Ill Communication” is an album that is spoiled by its own brilliance. I love portions of the record and other sections make me want to testily skip to the next track.

It is a record of excess. Genius excess but excess all the same. This hasn’t held critics back from lavishing praise on the record, noting its innovation and technical brilliance. I agree the innovation is great, but I’m here to listen to music, not file a patent.

First the good stuff, and there is plenty of it. The Beastie Boys bring not one but three exceptional MCs to the mix. Mike D, MCA, and Ad Rock are all at the height of their powers in 1994, passing the mic back and forth with a jocular enthusiasm. They’re like three best friends jostling one another as they race down to the beach to jump in the lake.

That lake in this case is a swirling mix of R&B, jazz, and samples of various bleeps, blurps and what the kids might call ring tones but what back in day we called “a phone.”

When it works, it is amazing, delivering rap classics like “Sure Shot”, “Root Down” and the rap classic “Sabotage”. All these songs sound as fresh today as they did 25 years ago. Many gave me a strut to my walk as I wandered the city streets with the Beastie Boys all up in my earholes.

Like their previous record (1992’s “Check Your Head”) the Beasties remain enamoured of the squawk box or, if not full squawk, then a lot of distortion on the vocal tracks. Then they throw in killer drum hits, jazz samples and some furious scratching. When it works, it comes out like “Alright Hear This,” a song with a million things going on that against all odds holds itself together.

However, there are also plenty of other songs where I recognize the brilliance of it all, but just wish there was a bit less of one or more components. Maybe less squawk, maybe less phone bleeps, and definitely less jazz.

The Beasties also return to their hardcore roots with songs like “Tough Guy” and “Heart Attack Man” both of which have a raw garage sound that felt out of place on the record.  

The record has twenty tracks, which is at least six and maybe eight too many. Pared down, “Ill Communication” might be worth all the hype it has received over the years. With everything the record is offering there is something for everyone, and it would be easy to just overlook the stuff that’s not for you. I think that’s what a lot of its admirers do. For me, taking the record as a whole, it just needs a final edit to give it more focus.

Best tracks: Sure Shot, B-Boys Making with the Freak Freak, Root Down, Sabotage, Alright Hear This

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