Mark Nishita, a.k.a. Money Mark, is a hard man to pin down. If you recognize the name, it’s most likely because of his role as the fourth (or is it fifth?) Beastie Boy from the days of Check Your Head on, but he’s been doing his solo thing all along. I’m afraid I haven’t heard his first release, Mark’s Keyboard Repair, but 1998’s Push the Button was a fine, if bizarre, little gem of an album, and now Change is Coming is here to push Nishita’s musical boundaries even further.
First, a little historical perspective: for all its wonderful moments, Push the Button had a serious problem with consistency. That is, most of the songs fell into two very distinct categories — they were either harmonious retro-pop tunes (which became generally my favorite tracks) or crazed keyboard/sampler fuckery (most of which left me scratching my head), neither of which were really allowed to “blossom” fully, as it were, before swerving into the next divergent track. Given that odd combination, I halfway cringed when I first ran across mention of Change Is Coming; with a title like that, I feared a whole album of experimental, difficult-listening keyboard mess (not that that’s bad, necessarily, but, well, difficult).
With the new album, however, Nishita has surprised me once again. There’s nary a hint of either style of music evident on Change, which leads me to think that Mark was looking for an even deeper change than I’d expected. What is this album about, then? Well, it’s strictly instrumental, for one thing — no more pretty pop songs — and it delves into retro-sounding jazz/funk/salsa with an awe-inspiring intensity. “Chocochip” starts off the album on a laid-back note; it’s a fun, breezy little bit of noodling that brings to mind all that “space lounge” stuff that was gaining popularity a few years back. It doesn’t stay in that vein for long, mind you (although Nishita and company do revisit it later, particularly on the Caribbean-sounding “Use Your Head”, which was apparently released previously on the Red Hot in Rio comp), but gets wild and dangerously funky for “Information Contraband”, which sounds like what the Chemical Brothers sometimes wish they could do, but are probably too blissed out on E to handle.
“Caught Without a Race” turns things down a notch once more, digging a more laid-back, jazzy hole and making it apparent that the sampling and weirdness have really taken a back seat this time out. For one thing, there are a surprising number of “traditional” instruments here, including congas, guitars, saxophone, and flute, making Money Mark feel more like a bandleader than anything else. It’s a testament to his skills as a songwriter and all-round musician that Nishita’s keyboard tends to sit in the background on most of the tracks; heck, a few of them, like “Information Contraband”, don’t even have a keyboard (well, okay — if it does, I can’t distinguish it from the guitars). This is less about a showcase for Mark’s keyboard skills than it is about the music, and that’s a very good thing.
The general sound of “Caught”, by the way, is fairly consistent throughout all of Change; it’s a gritty, urban sort of funk, close in style to ’70s musicians like Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield, but maybe closest to the New Orleans jazz-funk instrumentals of the Meters than anything else. “Glitch in Da System” is firmly in that vein, although it gets speedier and more futuristic-sounding — how the music to Austin Powers might’ve sounded if the movie were at all serious — while “Another Day to Love You” changes gears a bit, into a Latin mode. “Day” could almost be an outtake from the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack, with some especially fine percussion work. The later track “Pepe y Irene” takes things even further; another previous release on the Red Hot series of CDs, it’s apparently a collaboration with Latino supergroup Los Lobos that appeared originally on the Red Hot in Latin compilation.
“Soul Drive Sixth Avenue” is back to the street, true to its title, with funky-as-hell percussion and horns (not to mention some odd police siren-like sounds), and “People’s Party: Red Alert” follows similarly, but with more of a propulsive, freight train-like party groove to it, all the while remaining true to the rest of the CD. That brings me to the bad part of this, unfortunately: the thing about this stuff is that it’s all essentially background music, in the end. Start listening, and your attention’s bound to wander elsewhere, with the down-and-dirty funk of Change is Coming quietly simmering in the background of your mind. Do something else for a second, and five minutes later you realize you’ve somehow missed the last two tracks. Partly due to the lack of vocals on any of the tracks (and the general stylistic similarities throughout), it all tends to blend together into one hour-long soundtrack to a never-created Blaxploitation film.
So, is the above good or bad? Well, it all depends on your tastes, I suppose. For me, at least, Mark’s Change is a welcome one, fulfilling the promise of his past work. (Oh yeah, and it’s great for those long mornings staring out the bus window as the city passes by outside, too.)