It’s only natural: When you do something for a really, really long time, you get bored.
Say you’re an assembly line worker and the extent of your job is to move a can of Product X from one conveyor belt to the next. Eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, it’s: lift, move, place, repeat. Boring, right? So two-and-a-half weeks in, you decide to spruce things up a bit. You toss the can from one hand to the other on its way to the second belt. The next day, you flip it a little bit. Pretty soon, you’re tossing that can behind your back, between your legs, teaching yourself to juggle; you’ll do anything to keep the job you’re doing fresh. Finding ways to have fun with mundane tasks is the way an awfully large percentage of the worldwide workforce stays sane.
The Mix-Up is, for Beastie Boys, that first, exploratory can-toss: the one where you check to see if the boss is looking because, hell, you don’t want to get fired.
To liken musicianship to assembly-line redundancy, is, admittedly, reductive. Still, Beastie Boys have been doing basically the same thing for a solid 20 years or so—largely irreverent, confrontational, increasingly socially-conscious party hip-hop in which they trade lines, sample rock ‘n roll tunes and turn heads by rhyming, say, “wok” and “Spock.” When Licensed to Ill came out way back in ‘86, it sounded fresh, and they sounded ready to take on the world and kick all ass doing it. Despite the increased maturity and respectable subject matter displayed in To the Five Boroughs, released 18 years after that tremendous debut, the Boys were beginning to sound tired.
So now they’re taking a break. They’re tooling around the studio. They’re making things fun for themselves again, by making a record that means nothing, and will probably end up being a footnote in their extensive discography.
As a palette cleanser, The Mix-Up is actually pretty decent. Beastie Boys are competent musicians, and as a band, their performances are tight and allow a well-honed sense of flow and groove to the funk-rock style of the songs. Despite this fact, however, very few of the tracks on The Mix-Up are all that memorable. There’s a lot of great background work here—soundtracky kind of stuff—but we need a melody, or a killer beat, or hell, some poetry over the top. As it is, we get three guys who know how to play their instruments, but who play them into an amalgam of songs that would work perfectly as transitional moments never meant for starring roles.
After the first three songs do their part to drive that particular point home, the Boys pull out all the stops with the creepy slow-burn of “The Gala Event”. Really, you could do damn near anything you wanted over the bassline that Adam Yauch (that’s MCA, kids) drops here and you’d still have a great tune—and that’s exactly what the band does. Lots of sampled whooshes and whirs make their presence obvious, the guitar noodles with various melodies and plays with delay pedals, and Mike Diamond’s drumming keeps things moving along. It’s one of the only songs on the album that deals in something beyond pure funky relaxing happy-time music, and it shines for its incongruity. “Off the Grid” is another standout, starting much like other tracks on the album, but eventually transforming into a hard driving, slow-grinding rock song thanks to some big, distorted guitar action from Adam Horovitz (Adrock). Late in the album, “The Cousin of Death” shows up, and it’s hardly a song about sleep—the effect on the guitar is fantastic, as it plays a memorable, distorted little melody that’ll have you bobbin’ your head for hours. As for memorable moments, however, that’s about all of them (though some days, it’s easy to wish that “Electric Worm” was my theme song, cowbell and all).
There’s very little about The Mix-Up not to like, yet there’s also very little that will be remembered in five months when the best-of-the-year lists start coming out. Still, if this is what it takes for these guys to get up off the floor and feel motivated enough to blow us out of the water in a few more years, it’ll all be worth it. Until then, we’ve got hope to get us through, and a decent little instrumental set to keep us company for the summer, making the mundane moments of our own everyday lives seem just a little bit less so.