Photo by Glen E. FriedmanThe Beastie Boys have always fallen on the wrong side of hip-hop's authenticity tracks. It's not just that they're white -- though it doesn't help -- but their constantly evolving sound has rarely synced up with hip-hop convention. But rather than seem out of step, the Beasties have remained one step ahead, evolving from the original rap brat pack to hip-hop's most mercurial merchants of groove.
From its dozen-plus-year span to the dazzling cover art, the Beasties' Sounds of Science ranks as one of the few singular retrospectives in a musical genre not known for its long-term memory. The two-CD set takes you way back, from their nuevo-punk days in the early '80s ("Egg Raid on Mojo"), up through the funky fusion of their 1998 effort, Hello Nasty. Reflected in the dizzying collection of songs (42 in all) is the Beasties' chimerical ability to work in diverse soundscapes. While most of us were introduced to the Beasties through Rick Rubin's cock-rock production on the 1986 Licensed To Ill ("Slow and Low," "She's on It"), it was 1989's Paul's Boutique where the Beasties came into their own. Songs like "Hey Ladies" and "Shake Your Rump," despite their juvenile themes, were years ahead of the rap game with their dense collages of breakbeat science. The return to punk roots on albums like Check Your Head ("So Whatcha Want") and Ill Communication ("Sabatoge") only hardened the gristle of the band's sonic punch, and with Hello Nasty ("Body Movin'," "Intergalactic") they came back to the underground with an album that made everything from calypso to bossa nova to dub sound lowdown and funky.
What's never changed has been the group's youthful (some might say adolescent) spirit. True, they've outgrown their days of MTV-fueled debauchery, but their three-man-weave rhyme style is still a throwback to the old-school days of the Cold Crush Brothers and house-party harmonizing. Yet despite the lack of lyrical sublimity, the Beasties have managed to avoid obsolescence with a body of work that's allowed itself the room to be silly ("Boomin' Granny"), sophisticated ("Remote Control"), even sanctimonious ("Bodhisattva Vow").
The only letdown with Sounds of Science is that it doesn't include License To Ill's "Paul Revere," the song that best captures the Beasties' unlikely knack for indelible anthems. Though the track seems nothing more than a frat-rap fantasy of cowboys on the hunt for babes, beer and bills (in order of priority), it's the one song from the 1980s whose lyrics every hip-hop junkie remembers in their entirety. Play it at any club and watch people start to chant, "I did it like this, I did it like that, I did it with a whiffle ball bat, sooooo . . .," outing the closet Beasties groupie in us all.
KORN Issues (Epic/Immortal)
Critics are shooting their loads over the new Korn album because, well, it's the new Korn album. It's now official: Korn are at the point where they can do no wrong. Just as interesting as the new record, however, is the relationship the band has with its audience. With scarcely any pre-press or advance promotion to speak of, Issues went gold its first week -- that's one loyal fan base. But, with weekly Webcasts from Korn TV, their animated cameo on an episode of South Park, ad placement in public-transit shelters, etc., does the album's success indicate a rabid core following or an insidious marketing campaign? In a brilliant coup of consumer/content-provider synergy and cross-franchising, Issues comes with a variety of art presentations actually created by the winner and three finalists from the MTV Cover Contest. Collect all four. As of press time, the Korn Happy Meal is still on the drawing board.
With Issues, the Bakersfield five have unleashed a killer slab of heavy grind -- a real meat-'n'-potatoes, back-to-basics Korn album. The sinister keyboards, dark-wave F/X and aggro-meets-dance gestures of '98's Follow the Leader take a back seat this time around, so those hoping for a reprise of that wicked-cool hybrid of metal and New Romantic synth-pop may be disappointed. (But when you get as ill as Head and Munky do with those custom Ibanez seven-strings, who needs Korgs and Rolands?) Opening to the keen of bagpipes over naked whispers of "All I want in life is to be happy," Issues quickly embarks on the story of a brutally dysfunctional upbringing. "Trash" is the clear standout track, and not just because of its spookily quivering synth hook and massive guitar break. Singer Jonathan Davis masterfully lures us inside the head space of a pedophile, rasping, "Their flesh smells so new, and it's there for the taking/These little girls just make me feel so goddamn exhilarated." This won't shock fans, though, as domestic abuse has been a running theme through all Korn's records, and the singer's willingness to stick his battered heart out there for all to gaze upon is no small part of the group's appeal.
These suffocatingly personal tales might have been depressing in others' hands, but Korn's confessional and serious vibe is about vindication, not victimhood. In "Wish You Could Be Me," Davis musters bravado even at the blackest depths of human behavior, croaking over and over, "At least you could look at me while you're raping me," before exploding, "You fucking pussy!" Still, painful memories are but half of this tormented equation. Constant touring, stress and the full-time job of being in Korn have taken their toll, and "Wake Up" is a front-row seat for the drama, where leading-male Davis declaims, "Talking shit just to spite me/I swear I'm gonna leave." The chorus, however, is nothing if not hopeful -- "I can't take no more, what are we fighting for?/You are my brothers, each one I would die for/Let's take the stage and remember what we play for."
Even with distractions like running their own label, owning the rights to a mini-Lollapalooza-style tour, gleefully defying the music-biz axiom of releasing an album no more often than every two years and, of course, rock stardom's endless perks, these humble, hardscrabble Okie descendants never fail to appreciate the ones who made it all possible. To quote Davis in Circus magazine, "Tool only has an album every four years -- we want to take better care of our fans than that." Them's kind words, but don't forget that nothing whets the appetite like a good fast, Johnny boy. (Andrew Lentz)
ANI DiFRANCO To the Teeth (Righteous Babe)
When Ani DiFranco performed last July at the Universal Amphitheater, she debuted the then-unreleased title song of this new album, drawing analogies between violence and capitalism and asking, "Are we really gonna sleep through another century/While the rich profit off our blood?" When she reached the dramatic chorus, "Open fire on Hollywood/Open fire on MTV/Open fire on NBC/and CBS and ABC," her fans went ballistic. Twentysomethings shutting down Seattle recently suggests there are young adults whose consciousness was collectively weaned on DiFranco and Rage Against the Machine. When the Righteous Babe invokes "the ghost of Woody Guthrie" in "Soft Shoulder," the Battle in Seattle serves to remind us that guitars can still silence fascists.
After years of too-hip listlessness, ideology is cool again. Ideology means that someone has an opinion, god forbid, and DiFranco has been recording smart, opinionated songs since 1990, when she was 20 years old. What's been lost in the media yap over her bisexuality and politics and the mini-moguldom of her own anti-corporate empire is her consistent musical innovation. She came out of the acoustic-punk anti-folk movement of the late '80s, a raving maverick with a trademark staccato guitar attack and breathless vocal delivery. But DiFranco has a restless artist's soul, and on her last few albums she wisely shed a lot of her early DiFranco-isms. The funkified To the Teeth is her 14th exercise in the demolition of genres. Where once her songs too often shared the same spit-punk tempo, she's learned to slow down and let the lyrics breathe. This works in her favor, for she's a remarkable vocalist whose phrasing is as biting as her words. The ferociously unslick production whomps butt, displaying her punk roots and the fact that an artist, not some yuppie bean counter, is running the show. And she displays her virtuosity by playing a whole McCabe's backroom of instruments. The "little folk singer" even hip-hops on "Swing" with rapper Corey Parker.
While topical issues are addressed in the title track and "Hello Birmingham" (about the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian by an anti-choicer in DiFranco's hometown of Buffalo, N.Y.), DiFranco understands that politics is ultimately a form of self-examination. Whether it's self-destructive anger ("Back Back Back"), the joys of family (the bluegrassy "The Arrivals Gate") or Sapphic love ("I Know This Bar"), she's an empathetic chronicler. Guests include The Artist (yes, that Artist), sax legend Maceo Parker, and a blurt-'n'-bleep horn section that blows somewhere between Trane and New Orleans. Righteous, babe! (Michael Simmons)
CAT POWER at Fais Do Do, January 13
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Chan Marshall belongs to a rare breed of performer. Unintentionally adorable, she possesses a truly amazing voice -- wistful, broken, a syrupy, serrated cross between Hope Sandoval, Phoebe Snow and Southern gothic -- but she seems terrified of the stage.
Forsaking most of her Matador release, Moon Pix -- as well as Mick Turner and Jim White of Australia's Dirty Three, who played on the record -- Marshall, alone, gave something of a third-grade campfire recital, flitting back and forth between guitar and piano, falling all over herself in apology for forgetting her own chords and lyrics. But this was a recital full of encouraging parents.
When she kept her idiosyncrasies in check, Marshall and her guitar opened up the heavens; hundreds of lonely people pressed up against each other in awe as Marshall wove the chorus of "Satisfaction" and what sounded like Buck Owens' "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass" into material from her upcoming album. But mostly she didn't. Hiding behind her hair, she got through the first few bars of "You May Know Him" before giving up, and portions of "No Sense" and "Back of Your Head."
Someone said Marshall's found God and gone crazy, but her fans find her disarray disarming. No one cared that they didn't know the new songs, all down-by-the-river devotionals, or that her performance was a choppy ocean of half-songs and false starts. Most of the crowd would've been captivated if Marshall had been reading the backs of cereal boxes. (Skylaire Alfvegren)