I heard it again the other day.
Some miserable pundit was droning on about what a terrible year this has been for new music. And it made me wonder if he was living in Bizarro World. This isn’t one of those cases where my tastes are different from the rest of the world. By all objective measures, 2011 has been extraordinary so far, and hearing someone say the opposite is like listening to the Flat Earth Society.
Let me try to give you the experience of my 2011 thus far, so you know where I’m coming from. Start with the new Decemberists on January 18, and the new Iron and Wine on January 25. Neither one are masterpieces, but they’re solid, entertaining pieces of music that kicked the year off well. Then, on February 15, PJ Harvey blew the doors open with her audio war documentary Let England Shake. This would be, in any other year, the indisputable number one record.
But 2011 was just getting warmed up. On February 18, Radiohead put out The King of Limbs, the first of their electro-clacks-and-whirs records I liked a lot. And then on March 8, R.E.M. released their best album in 20 years, Collapse Into Now. Somewhere in there I discovered The Joy Formidable and The Boxer Rebellion, both of whom put out amazing records this year.
And then! On April 12, Elbow gave us Build a Rocket Boys, their finest work. I didn’t have much time to absorb it, though, because on the same day, Paul Simon graced us with So Beautiful or So What, a late-career masterwork that still dominates my CD player. And shortly after that, I got the Violet Burning’s three-CD stunner The Story of Our Lives, and have been playing that to death ever since.
These are just the highlights of the first four months, people. I haven’t mentioned great little records like Eisley’s The Valley and Teddy Thompson’s Bella and Cut/Copy’s Zonoscope and the Dears’ Degeneration Street, which would deserve all the praise in the world in a normal year, but have been given short shrift in this one. If the first few months of awesome were all 2011 had in store, it would still be a great year. But we’re just getting rolling, I think.
Want proof? I have it for you this week. It’s called Helplessness Blues, and it’s the sophomore effort from Fleet Foxes. And it’s incredible.
Some years ago, I started paying more attention to new bands than I had in the past. I’ve always been one drawn to breadth of achievement, meaning catalogs that stretch back 20 or 30 years, and I unfairly dismissed many new artists as young punks with no idea what they were doing. Since I decided to widen my perspective, I’ve discovered many bands and songwriters I might have overlooked in years past. But none have thrilled me more than Fleet Foxes.
I really didn’t know what to expect back in 2008 when I spun this Seattle sextet’s debut for the first time. What I got, though, was timeless excellence. I have no idea how this band has done it, but they’ve come up with an alchemical combination of obvious influences – Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Mamas and the Papas, English folk music, Simon and Garfunkel – that transcends them. Fleet Foxes songs sound as old as time itself, like a river deep and wide that has been traveling its course for centuries. This is music your grandkids and grandparents will enjoy in equal measure. It is beholden to no time, no trend, no fashion.
Oh, and Robin Pecknold and his band write some great songs, too. They’ve come up with 12 more on Helplessness Blues, an album that changes little from the first, but at the same time deepens the Fleet Foxes experience. The multi-part harmonies, the Brian Wilson vocal arrangements, the delicate acoustic guitars, the songs that fold and change in the middle, ending up in a different part of the woods than when they began – it’s all here, seemingly untouched. And yet, this album is somehow richer, and definitely darker.
Exhibit A: “The Plains/Bitter Dancer,” an epic at 5:54. It opens with an expanse of harmonies, unfolding like clouds over a blackening sky as the guitars circle round beneath them, but just as you get used to that, everything drops away, and the melody begins, tentatively, over fragile finger-picking. When the piano slides in, it’s one of my favorite moments on the album. But the song isn’t done – as the flutes play the main melody out, the Foxes announce a stunning coda, their voices coalescing as the band erupts (well, gently erupts) behind them. It’s amazing, bringing all the elements of that first record together and expanding them.
With all that, it may sound like Helplessness Blues is a more difficult listen, but this isn’t the case. The title track, sequenced next, is as simple as strummy folk songs come, Pecknold’s shaft-of-light voice irresistibly coaxing the melody forward. “And I don’t, I don’t know who to believe, I’ll get back to you someday soon, you will see…” Even more sparse is “Blue Spotted Tail,” perhaps the album’s most beautiful moment. Over a wispy background, Pecknold asks everything that’s on his mind: “Why is life made only for to end? Why do I do all this waiting, then?” It’s the most direct lyric on an album full of similar searching.
At the opposite end of the sonic spectrum, there is the eight-minute “The Shrine/An Argument,” the most complex Fleet Foxes song to date. Pecknold’s voice breaks as he sings “sunlight over me no matter what I do” – he somehow makes that line sound like a cry to an unjust god. The song winds through several sections, including one full of atonal horns and scratchy strings, and by its end, the notion that Fleet Foxes are some hippie folk band has been thoroughly dealt with.
I wasn’t sure how Fleet Foxes would be able to follow up their debut, one of the finest records I’ve heard in years. I understand making Helplessness Blues was a long and arduous process – the band scrapped an entire record’s worth of recordings last year, opting to start over. It was worth all the time spent. This is the rare sophomore album that holds on to the debut’s core sound, all the while charting new territory. It’s not a radical change in direction, nor is it a clone. It’s a restatement of purpose, a beautiful deepening of everything Fleet Foxes is. It’s also fantastic.
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But wait, there’s more.
This week also saw the long-awaited release of Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, the eighth album from the Beastie Boys. Yes, they’ve been making records since 1982. Yes, this is only their eighth long-player. I was surprised too, given how indelible their mark on the scene is. I can’t imagine a world without the Beastie Boys. Nor would I want to.
I’ve often said this, but I wouldn’t know how to go about pitching the Beastie Boys to a record label now. Three Jewish guys from New York who used to play hardcore, but settled on old-school hip-hop, with live instruments and some funk instrumentals thrown in. It’s almost hard to believe such a band exists, but here they are.
If they’d never done anything except Paul’s Boutique, their 1989 samples-and-rhymes masterwork, they’d still be important. But from there they redefined themselves each time out, taking as much time as they needed between records, painstakingly crafting them to sound as random and freewheeling as possible. It’s been four years since their last one, the instrumental jam The Mix-Up, and nine years since To the Five Boroughs, the last time we heard Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D. take the mic.
Granted, the Beasties had plenty of reasons for the delay, most notably MCA’s 2009 cancer scare. Hot Sauce Committee was initially announced as a double record, to be released in halves. But MCA’s cancer treatments delayed Part One indefinitely, and most of the tracks slated for that record have ended up on Part Two. (Chances are very good there will never be a Hot Sauce Committee Part One. Just roll with it.) What we have here is a single album built from the raw material of a double, and as you might expect, it’s a very consistent effort.
But here’s my problem: when did consistency become a good thing for a Beastie Boys record? What I liked about their earlier stuff, particularly the Check Your Head to Hello Nasty period, was the sheer unpredictability. I had no idea what the Boys were going to throw at me from one track to the next. They’d be sharing the mic with Q-Tip one second, slamming out a hardcore tune about bad sportsmanship the next, and shimmying their way through a slinky instrumental after that. On Nasty they sang ballads and collaborated with Lee “Scratch” Perry. They were all over the place.
Lately, though, they’ve been putting their sound into boxes. Their hardcore past is all but forgotten. Five Boroughs was a hip-hop album, start to finish. The Mix-Up made an entire CD out of those instrumental bits they used to scatter around like confetti. And now Hot Sauce Committee brings them back to hip-hop for 16 tracks, with little variation. There’s almost no fat on it, save for a couple of skits, but there’s nothing on it except for beats and rhymes.
That said, they’re awesome beats and rhymes, and the beats are mostly made with live instruments, a forgotten Beastie trademark. The record opens with “Make Some Noise,” a classic B-Boys track reminiscent of Check Your Head. The collaboration with Nas, “Too Many Rappers,” is an unmitigated delight. “Funky Donkey” is totally silly, yet satisfying, with some terrific percussion. “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win,” their collaboration with Santigold, rocks a reggae beat and does it with style. And “Lee Majors Come Again” can proudly stand with the best of their work – it’s the brashest, most propulsive thing they’ve done since “The Negotiation Limerick File.” As a Beastie Boys hip-hop record, this one is just great.
And the Boys haven’t lost their penchant for witty rhymes. Here are a couple of examples:
“Pass me the scalpel, I’ll make an incision, cut off the part of your brain that does the bitchin’, put it in formaldehyde and put it on the shelf so you can show it to your friends and say, ‘That’s my old self.’”
“I’m back on a roll, got total control, I flow like the water out your toilet bowl…”
“My lyrics spin round like a hurricane twister, so get your hologram on off of Wolf Blitzer…”
“I burn you to a crisp, sucker, back up off the toaster, I make you sick like at Kenny Roger’s Roaster…”
“Live round the clock like Disco Donut, I’m like a tailor, got the whole thing sewn up, or a proctologist, I move asses, got so much heat that I fog your mom’s glasses…”
“I go wooo like a fire engine, flashing lights to get your attention, stop sweating me about the weather, go shave a sheep and knit yourself a sweater…”
“You want to battle? Easy now, star, my DJ’s so nasty he needs a sneeze guard…”
And on and on. It’s like the 32 years since “Rapper’s Delight” never happened – it’s old-school braggadocio on a grand scale. I love it to bits. They’re never serious, and yet they’re serious as a heart attack. I wouldn’t have any idea how to go about creating a band like the Beastie Boys, but luckily, I don’t have to. Hot Sauce Committee Part Two is a welcome return for a band like no other, and if I sometimes wish it were a little less focused, it’s hard to quibble about that. It’s relentless, it’s fun, it’s the Beastie Boys. What else do you need to know?
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See you in line Tuesday morning.