On The Horizon
An Early Look at U2's New One

By the time you read this, I will have participated in my first panel discussion as a semi-professional music writer.

My friend Benjie Hughes runs a full-service recording studio in Aurora and plays in a band himself. But that’s not enough for Mr. Hughes – he’s taken it upon himself to bring the entire music-making and music-loving community together, in a spirit of community and cooperation, through a number of terrific regular events. And one of them, he calls The Guild – it’s a monthly meeting of those in the biz, comparing notes and talking music.

I’ve only been able to make a couple of these meetings, but they’re always a blast. I sometimes feel like the odd man out – I love music, but I haven’t made my own music in a long time, and I never got paid for it. Likewise, I was the only one on the panel Monday night who doesn’t currently get paid to write about music. I just do it ‘cause I love it, and I’d probably do it anyway.

Through the power of time travel, I am writing this before appearing on Monday’s panel, so I can’t possibly tell you how it went yet. (Update: I thought it went very well. Time travel is awesome!) But if you’re coming to this column for the first time thanks to that discussion, thank you, and welcome. This one’s gonna be a bit random – we’re still waiting for the big spring releases to start coming down the pike – but hopefully not a waste of your time. Come on back. We’ll be here every week.

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I’ve spent the week listening to two records, over and over.

The first of them isn’t out yet, but after years of secrecy, it leaked to an Australian music service last week, and you know, game over. Of course, I’m talking about U2’s No Line on the Horizon. I’ve heard it six times now, and it remains one of the long-running band’s most confounding records for me in this early going – I’m not sure what I think of it from day to day.

My first reaction was almost roundly negative. No Line is a departure from the last two U2 records, 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Those albums found the quartet regaining its snarl, its scrappy fire, after a decade of wandering the ironic-pop wilderness. More than that, though, they captured Bono and the boys in a journeyman period, writing the kind of tight, well-crafted pop songs only seasoned professionals can put together. More conservative records? Probably, but they were solid and consistent ones, for the first time in ages.

No Line on the Horizon brings back the sonic experimentation of their Achtung Baby period, but too often marries it to weak, half-formed song ideas. On first listen, my heart sank over and over – the title track has a thick sound but a thin skeleton and almost no chorus, “Moment of Surrender” nearly kills the album dead with seven minutes of go-nowhere repetition, and I still don’t quite know what they were going for on the meandering, half-chanted “Unknown Caller.” I’ve heard “Get On Your Boots” 20 times, and I still don’t like it, but I was surprised what a jolt of energy it delivers to this languid affair. “White as Snow” is very pretty, but takes its central melody directly from “O Come, O Come Emanuel.” I just sighed loudly again and again, thinking, “This is it? Five years, and this is what you’ve got?”

There were highlights, even on that first listen, most notably track two, “Magnificent,” which lives up to its title. Has there ever been a band able to get the most out of a single repeated lick like this one can? “Magnificent” only has the one, but it’s pretty amazing. I also quite liked “Stand Up Comedy” and “Breathe,” two of the more straightforward numbers, and closer “Cedars of Lebanon” is stark, off-kilter and unnerving – it’s taken me some time to realize that it’s exactly right.

The rest is still a struggle, but it’s growing on me. I realize I’m bringing a lot to this album, including a strong desire to like it – U2 has been one of the most important bands of my life, and they’ve been on such a roll lately, I’d hate to watch them flame out with an overthought, underwritten misfire. At some point, though, I may just have to accept that’s what they’ve delivered. No Line is a big, sweeping experience, but inside, it feels oddly empty.

And of course, good ol’ David Fricke gave it five stars

Anyway, the listening continues. Full review to come after the album’s official release on March 3.

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But I said I’ve been listening to two records, and the other one was a surprise. It’s the 20th anniversary reissue of Paul’s Boutique, by the Beastie Boys, and can I just talk for a minute about how freaking awesome this album is?

Embarrassingly enough, my first Beastie experiences came from my sister, who played Licensed to Ill again and again when we were kids. I was 12, and she was nine, and why my mother let her even have that tape, I don’t know. I was morally opposed to it while mom and dad were around, but secretly enamored with it when they weren’t. I remember joining a few of my friends at summer camp one year in a terrible parody version of “Fight for Your Right,” championing our rights as kids to stay home if we wanted to. I was a nerdy child.

Paul’s Boutique came out when I was 15, and I bought it on cassette. Solid black plastic tape, old-school Capitol Records logo, lyrics printed as one long paragraph, black on sea green, with drawings of fish as decoration. And a panoramic cover photo that just kept folding out and out and out. I didn’t even know what cool was at that age, but Paul’s Boutique was cool.

Here’s the thing, though. Listening to this and Licensed to Ill back to back, it’s hard to imagine now, but everyone – everyone – was disappointed in Paul’s Boutique when it came out. I swear, we were. It’s like we all said, “You know, this insanely clever pop-cultural blender of a head trip of an album is okay, but I’d rather hear ‘Brass Monkey’ again. Where is this album’s ‘Girls’?” That’s just insane. But true story, kids, the album was dead on arrival, and the Beasties written off as a novelty band that just couldn’t keep the joke going.

What the hell were we thinking? Paul’s Boutique is a massive step up in every single way from the frat-boy idiocy of Ill. In fact, even now, there are few albums that sound as cool as this one does. Just about every second of the music has been sampled from other sources, cut and spliced and re-edited into new shapes – Paul’s Boutique joins the first three De La Soul albums as the best arguments ever put forward for sampling as an art form. Classic rock sits alongside Motown soul and jazz and a hundred other things. Lines from other songs and movies are inserted to complete jokes, or finish up rhymes. Years before Quentin Tarantino made his first movie, the Dust Brothers and the Beasties made something in his style, raiding 40 years of pop culture to make something out of time.

I mean, leave aside ass-kickers like “Shake Your Rump” and “Hey Ladies” for the moment, have you heard “Egg Man”? A vandalism party in three minutes, the song is simply dizzying – just try to spot all the samples. If you need a cheat sheet, go here. They sample Public Enemy, Curtis Mayfield, Tower of Power, Cheech and Chong, and the scores to Cape Fear and Psycho, all in the same song. Later they hit Loggins and Messina, the Eagles, the Beatles, a million different movies, Johnny Cash, and every great funk drum beat ever. It’s seamless and brilliant – these are new songs, not stolen hooks.

But that’s not all. The Beasties discovered their a-game on Paul’s Boutique, perfecting their old-school absurdism style of lyric writing. These white guys have, like, no flow at all, but it doesn’t matter – they are brilliant at what they do. Here’s just a sampling of amazing lines, all taken from just the first song, “Shake Your Rump”:

“So like a pimp I’m pimpin, got a boat to eat shrimp in, nothing wrong with my leg, just B-Boy limping…”

“Got arrested at Mardi Gras for jumping on a float, my man MCA’s got a beard like a billy goat…”

“Like Sam the butcher bringing Alice the meat, like Fred Flintstone driving around with bald feet…”

“Running from the law, the press and the parents, ‘Is your name Michael Diamond?’ ‘Nah, mine’s Clarence…’”

And of course, “I got the peg leg at the end of my stump, shake your rump…”

They mean nothing. They are awesome. The whole record’s full of them. In many ways, the Beasties never got this good at this kind of thing again – later records brought in funk instrumentals, punk interludes and a social conscience, leaving less room for this kind of inspired lunacy. At track 13 on this album is perhaps the greatest Beastie song of them all, “Shadrach,” in which these Jewish boys co-opt the names of three friends of Daniel in the Old Testament, and then declare they “got more stories than J.D. got Salinger,” all over samples from “Hot and Nasty” and “Loose Booty.” It’s stunning, even 20 years later.

Paul’s Boutique isn’t perfect – it does end with the still-baffling, 12-minute mish-mash “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” after all – but it is pretty close, and if you haven’t heard it, you really should. A 20-year anniversary edition of this thing certainly makes me feel old, but the joyous, endlessly inventive music it contains makes me feel young again. I love this album.

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And so we wait for the good stuff, but believe me, it’s coming. March, all by itself, is going to set me back about $500, but it’s going to be worth it. Here’s a look at what’s coming:

On March 3, we get new ones from Neko Case, Soundtrack of Our Lives, Robert Pollard’s new band Boston Spaceships, Revolting Cocks, Buddy and Julie Miller, and some little band called U2. (I think they could be big one day. Keep your eye on ‘em.) The next week, look out for Chris Cornell, Cursive, and a reissue of Beth Orton’s still-awesome Trailer Park.

March 17 sees only former Early November frontman Ace Enders’ solo album, When I Hit the Ground, released under the name Ace Enders and a Million Different People. But March 24 hits us with the new Decemberists, Hazards of Love; the new Indigo Girls, Poseidon and the Bitter Bug; new things from Mastodon, Pet Shop Boys, KMFDM and MxPx; deluxe reissues of the first three Radiohead albums and the first Pearl Jam disc; and the first new album from Marillion guitarist Steve Rothery’s side band, The Wishing Tree, in more than 10 years. Whew! Damn.

The last week of the month will brings us the long-awaited second collaboration between PJ Harvey and John Parish, the we-promise-this-time last offering from Ministry (called Adios, because that worked so well for KMFDM), and new things from Bruce Cockburn, Peter Bjorn and John, and Gavin DeGraw. Oh, and Queensryche’s new album, a so-earnest-it’s-probably-awful concept record called American Soldier.

April! We have new records on the way from Doves, Bob Mould, The Hold Steady (their first live document), Fastball, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Depeche Mode, Jars of Clay, Great Northern, and Heaven and Hell, the Dio-era Black Sabbath under their new name. Oh, and Ben Folds will release his University A Cappella project – it’s a collection of renditions of his songs by college a cappella acts. His maddest idea yet? Maybe so…

You already know Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown is slated for May 5, but you may not know that May will also bring us new Isis, the solo debut from Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, a two-disc rarities collection from Iron and Wine, and, at the furthest point on my release calendar right now, Veckatimest, the third record from Grizzly Bear. Look back at that list. As spring seasons go, that ain’t bad.

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A couple of random (well, more random) notes before signing off.

I was about 75 percent on my Oscar picks, as it turns out. I was pulling for Mickey Rourke, since I don’t think the Academy is going to have the chance to honor him again for a performance like this. But I wouldn’t have missed Sean Penn’s “you commie homo-loving sons-o-guns” speech. Penelope Cruz surprised me, but I suppose Viola Davis needs a more substantial role to catch the voters’ attention. And it was Kate Winslet’s year, and I feel dumb for not realizing that.

But hooray for Slumdog Millionaire, the little film that could. I think this movie tapped into the cultural zeitgeist in a way no one was prepared for – when Danny Boyle was shooting his Mumbai fairy tale, he couldn’t have known that the U.S. economic situation would soon make the story of a hard-luck kid getting everything he wants seem relevant. But also, there’s a verve, an energy to this movie that none of the other nominees had. It’s joyous, alive filmmaking at its best, and I’m glad to see it honored.

So last week, I took shots at the premiere episode of Dollhouse, so it’s only fair that I mention the second, which was a marked improvement. It still wasn’t particularly engaging, but it was tense, and layered, and made me care a little bit more. It’s telling that this episode did not come from creator Joss Whedon, but from Stephen DeKnight, one of the brightest lights of Whedon’s Angel writing staff. Maybe some of the writers care about this show more than Whedon does, and can ignite his creative spark. We’ll see.

Next week, a look at Steven Wilson’s Insurgentes. And maybe that Colin Baker column. We’ll see. For now, I’m going to listen to No Line on the Horizon again and try to like it more. Thanks for reading.

See you in line Tuesday morning.