[29 April 2009]
Any discussion of Beastie Boys’ third album is likely to divide fans into two camps: those who contend that Paul’s Boutique was—and remains—their masterpiece, and those who feel that their second album, while amazing, was also a necessary gateway for their best material. Put another way, they had to make Paul’s Boutique, and once it was out of their systems, they could embark on new challenges. This reviewer thought Check Your Head was a surprising and refreshing leap forward in 1992, and the passing of 17 years has done little to diminish its enduring appeal. It remains vital and engaging, in part because of the way it documents a particular moment when the band embraced the past while anticipating the future. A forward-looking album that establishes a distinctive ‘70s-era soul vibe? Only this band was capable, at that time, of pulling of such an ostensibly paradoxical achievement, and bringing the masses along to the party. That the group was able to establish a foundation from which their future work would flow was only slightly more momentous than the ways in which they turned a white-hot light on the myriad influences they wore so gleefully on their sleeves.
When the boys picked up instruments and actually proved they could play them it was intriguing; that they produced an album brimming with original, occasionally indelible material remains something of a revelation. Who woulda thunk it? This is the same band that announced themselves (quite successfully) to the world as wiseass clowns on License to Ill. They rallied the underage troops to fight for their right to party and, beer bongs in hand, a nation of nitwits made them millionaires. But there was always a sense that this was a naked, calculated ploy for commercial success. To their credit, it worked. So it was impressive and, frankly, astonishing, to see how quickly they put away childish things and got busy concocting Paul’s Boutique. Indeed, the prepubescent fan base deserted them as quickly as it had embraced them, and their second album earned instant street cred simply for not being a retread of what had worked so wonderfully the first time.
Although it eventually became a cult classic, Paul’s Boutique was deemed a commercial dud when it dropped in 1989. It was such a departure from the simplistic, goofy boys-just-wanna-have-fun shenanigans of their debut, it obviously alienated some, and left many indifferent. By refusing to ride the gravy train, the band drew a line in the sand and has never retreated. It took a while for fans to catch up with them, but enough people eventually gravitated to Paul’s Boutique to ensure they had indeed made an astute decision, artistically and commercially. And so, some of these newer fans must have been shocked when, three years later, Check Your Head appeared, signifying another radical musical makeover. The response this time was immediate and undeniable, with the album breaking into the Billboard Top Ten. The first single, “So What’Cha Want” was so good, and so fresh, it managed to turn haters into backers. It was, and still is, a magic nugget of pop perfection.
Not everyone loved this release, and a critique that resurfaces to this day is that the album lacks cohesion; that it’s an uneven mess with some great moments, some weak moments, and some middling material. Another way of looking at it is to suggest that the rap-to-rock kitchen sink methodology works just fine, and is in fact an ideal strategy that allowed Beastie Boys to embrace their disparate interests and obsessions. The authentic DIY sensibility wins style points while augmenting what was, at the time, a burgeoning aesthetic integrity. If they couldn’t acquit themselves on their instruments, or their composing chops were weak, all of this would have been exposed and the album would have been a failure. By taking off the sample-phile training wheels, they effectively boxed themselves into a corner and put the onus entirely on their collective creativity. Where they once relied (too much?) on a hodgepodge of pirated pop culture treasure (courtesy of the justly venerated Dust Brothers production team and their set the controls for the heart of the sample M.O.), Check Your Head places the band itself in the spotlight and the focus is evenly split between music and mood.
Not to worry, the rhyming and stealing is still on display, but ultimately the words are part of a much bigger picture: where Paul’s Boutique was an elaborate comic book, Check Your Head is like a successful remake of an old B-movie. The music itself is the star attraction, with Adam (Ad-Rock) Horovitz handling the guitar, Adam (MCA) Yauch on bass and Michael (Mike D) Diamond doing drum duties. It is worth remembering that these gentlemen first formed a group in 1979, so it wasn’t as if they had never played instruments before; of course, it was as a punk/thrash outfit that they first gained attention. The best supporting actor is keyboardist Mark Ramos-Nishita (Money Mark) who makes crucial contributions throughout, adding color, flavor and sometimes a whole foundation the band builds on. It is difficult to overstate how important the organ player’s presence is: Money Mark is the fourth member of this outfit in much the same way George Martin functioned as an indispensable fifth Beatle on much of their later work.
The songs that retain their capacity to impress and amaze are the same ones that opened eyes all the way back in ’92: the instrumentals. Altogether, there are three tracks without any sort of vocals, a handful with minimal vocals and a couple where the vocals function as a part of the music (the chanting on “Something’s Got to Give” and the practically whispered words on album-closer “Namaste”). All of these songs are successful: once the novelty of these clown princes of rap playing instruments wears off, it quickly becomes evident that they also can compose memorable tunes. They have gone from sampling Curtis Mayfield (on “Paul’s Boutique”) to creating bona fide slinky ‘70s soundscapes. And yet, even as they are taking fairly giant strides forward, the band can’t help looking (lovingly) backward: many of these tracks invoke the aforementioned ‘70s soundtrack vibe (“POW”, “In 3’s”) while others recall the past as a springboard for the band’s unique vision (“Lighten Up”, “Gratitude”). And then there is the funkified anthem “Groove Holmes”, an unadulterated tribute to the jazz organist generally considered one of the forefathers of acid jazz. It was never this good before, and never got this good again.
Of course, there are some rambunctious reminders of the good old days, with marble-mouthed rapping front and center on songs like “Finger Lickin’ Good”, “Stand Together”, “The Maestro” and “Professor Booty”. The highlight of the band’s rap-and-roll 3.0 is the tour-de-force “Pass the Mic”, where they demonstrate that they can still pull off what worked best on Paul’s Boutique. This is their tightest, most authentic rap song, a tag team effort crammed with ideas and energy, incorporating everything from Jimmy “Kid Dy-no-mite” Walker to James Newton (a five second flute sample that inspired an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit). Obviously words can’t convey what sounds achieve, and the best way to “feel what they’re feeling” is to watch and listen:
Sample junkies can have a field day with what could (should?) have been a simplistic throwaway, the infectious “Funky Boss”. In actuality, it is a clinic of sound-collage adrenaline, from the bongo beat/cop-show theme introduction to samples ranging from Barrington Levy, Ohio Players and Richard Pryor—all in just over 90 seconds. “Finger Lickin’ Good” goes all the way from Rahsaan Roland Kirk to Sly and the Family Stone to…Bob Dylan (!). Speaking of Sly Stone, the band’s cover of “Time for Livin’” is like a brick through the window: a short, sharp shock wherein they manage to represent their hardcore roots while working in some borrowed lyrics from the immortal Lee “Scratch” Perry. And here again is an opportune time to reiterate why this album somehow manages to be slightly better than the sum of its parts. An entire album of (or, even a couple more) punk rock workouts would be entirely too much of a not-so-good thing; but coming as it does between the droll “The Biz vs. The Nuge” (sampling Ted Nugent’s “Homebound” with the irrepressible Biz Markie’s serenade) and the almost shockingly subtle “Something’s Got to Give”, it explodes as a one minute and 48-second smoke bomb.
What about the obligatory goofball quotient? The balance is just right, proving that the boys, no longer brats, could still be bratty. The gleeful sample from (actual album?) On Wine—How to Select and Serve is a refreshing change of pace, and the faux night club noodling of “Live at P.J.’s” is amusing enough, while showcasing Money Mark’s flawless organ embellishment. But the ultimate inside joke is the opening section of “The Maestro” which utilizes an actual voice mail left for the boys by someone who called the number for “Paul’s Boutique”: “Yo Paul…you can kiss my ass, I ain’t interested in you anyhow…”
Special mention must be made of the group’s tribute to Jimi Hendrix, the moment when all of these elements come together. “Jimmy James” is certainly one of the ultimate opening statements of any album made in the last two decades, and it still reverberates as the shot heard ‘round the record industry. Listening to this one, then, was an immediate announcement that we weren’t in Brooklyn anymore, and listening to it, now, is an unnerving reminder of how many bands (the good, the bad, and the awful) tried to imitate this hardcore rap rock amalgamation, with little success. Of course the boys themselves emulated the great Run DMC. Obviously they understood they could never sound as authoritative (or make it sound as effortless, think “It’s Tricky”). On the other hand, “Jimmy James” sounds quite unlike anything anyone else had done (or has done): building a sound structure from the ground up, all on a groove from an obscure Curtis Knight song (“Happy Birthday”, featuring a young Hendrix). It anticipates Beck and the full fruition of live music married to samples on Beck’s (Dust Brothers produced) Odelay. Here, the sick sounds of the B-Boys’ science coalesce: the raw scratching and brilliant sampling interspersed with their newfound joy of playing music. Interesting trivia tidbit: Unable to get approval from the Hendrix estate, the original version was “refined” and the actual Hendrix snippets (from songs like “Third Stone from the Sun” and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming”) were smoothed over; although even in the album version you can hear the split second of “Foxey Lady” that spins the song out. Check out the “Original Original Version”, below:
So why now for the deluxe reissue treatment? This being the 20th anniversary of Paul’s Boutique, which itself was remastered a few months back, means there is no time like the present to spruce up the best of the back catalog (their next album, Ill Communication will follow this summer). Frankly, the sound on the original CD was top-notch (much credit should be given to co-producer and engineer Mario Caldato Jr, aka Mario C.), so while you can certainly hear all “eight bazookas” on this edition, the real draw is the second disc chock full of B-sides and remixes. There is plenty of throwaway material here, but for fans who never splurged on the 12-inches, here is an opportunity to get all the detritus in one place. There are some interesting, if inferior versions (and/or remixes) of the mega-hits “Pass the Mic” and “So What’Cha Want”, and there are some tasty nuggets, such as “The Skills to Pay the Bills”. The true highlight is that “original original” version of “Jimmy James”; you can hear all those Hendrix samples and the groove is as aggressive and gnarly on this take.
As always, the material left on the cutting room floor tends to put the final product in appropriate perspective. The fact that they decided to omit a song like “The Skills to Pay the Bills”, which is, by any reasonable criteria, a better “song” than “Live at P.J.’s” or “Mark on the Bus” is ultimately not the point; it wouldn’t have fit into the flow as well. Each song on Check Your Head eases (or crashes) into the next, coming out guns blazing with “Jimmy James” and drifting off to serenity with “Namaste”. It might be said that this is one of the first CDs that truly approximates the feel of a double LP: it has the ups, downs and (importantly) the in-betweens that ultimately add up to an artistic statement: if nothing worthwhile is being said, it’s forgettable, when the material is tight and timeless, it endures as a stylistic and soulful milestone.