By Chris Gray
By Corey Deiterman
By Jef With One F
By Chris Gray
By Rocks Off
By Rocks Off
How heated has fan anticipation been for the Beastie Boys' latest? It's been reported that at a recent record store robbery, a guy with a gun demanded not only cash but a copy of Hello Nasty.
Lucky him: Hello Nasty is a stunning return to the elastic, funky fun and word games of the more experimental Beastie outings Paul's Boutique and Check Your Head. Six-pack solid in all the right places, Nasty lacks the unevenness that marred its predecessor, 1994's Ill Communication. In short, the trio has trimmed the fat (or, err, phat). Gone are the minute-long punk-rock rants, and the playful instrumentals have been reduced to brief, palate-cleansing interludes. Taking their place are freaky-fried beats, space-age synthesizers, looped samples, goofball rapping and loads of scratching. More good news: The Beasties' snotty bravado is back in full force. ("My name's Mike D and I'm the ladies' choice.")
But what makes Hello Nasty such a welcome return to form is the way the band continues to deal in the fresh and unexpected while remaining aesthetically consistent. Backed by cheesy organ, a basic drum-machine beat and worldly percussive coloration on "Dr. Lee, PhD," dub legend Lee "Scratch" Perry drops teasing non sequiturs about the "beastly brothers and beastly boys and their beastly toys." With its mix of cello, upright bass, brush strokes and acoustic guitar, "Don't Know" finds bassist Adam Yauch playing the folksinger. Even weirder is "Song for Junior," where the lads groove like Santana scoring a porn soundtrack. And therein lies the life of Nasty's party: The Beasties never lose their grip on the horny bottom end. (****)
You can tell a lot about a folksinger by the way he carries a tune. But in Jeff Black's case, the voice doesn't fit the man. Performing for a packed house at this year's South by Southwest Music Conference, Black had all the presence of a sleep-deprived trucker assigned the task of conducting a symphony orchestra. Looking every inch the small-town Missouri gas station attendant he once was, a weary-looking Black barely moved during the whole set, occasionally turning to his band -- made up of members of No Depression spokes-band Wilco -- and shrugging his shoulders as the music continued at a patient, steady pace. It was easy to see why Black's first significant stint in front of an audience came in exchange for his services as a bouncer at a Kansas City-area blues club: Up there on-stage, the singer/songwriter was an awkwardly imposing presence -- the sort of guy you'd befriend just so he could fight your dirtiest battles.
Then he opened his mouth, and the beauty in the beast made itself known. Black is a commanding vocalist, a soul-soaked natural whose honesty grabs you by the throat. His delivery is aural molasses, as dense and deliberate as it is compellingly sweet. And it's that voice -- so heartbreakingly honest -- that makes you realize you had Jeff Black figured all wrong. He's a gentle giant; a literate sentimentality spills from his lips, softening the flaws of his Arista Austin debut, Birmingham Road.
With more highs than lows, Birmingham Road shows a talented songwriter who still has a little to learn about subtlety and restraint. Produced by Susan Rogers (David Byrne, Paul Westerberg) at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studios outside Austin, the album's 12 tracks benefit from tasteful sonic touches and solid performances by the same Wilco crew (minus leader Jeff Tweedy) that supported Black at SXSW. Particularly moving is the interplay between the guitars and keyboards (mostly piano and organ), which lends poignancy to the ballads (the vivid childhood recollection of "Ghosts in the Graveyard"; the lament "Nebo Hill") and potency to the rockers (the hearty lesson in perseverance "That's Just About Right"; the Neil Youngian defense of common folk "Street").
Not that Birmingham Road ever really kicks out the jams. Black is something of a redneck Billy Joel. Listen closely; similarities between the two singers do exist -- especially their liberal use of vibrato to supply drama and emphasis. And like Joel, when Black rocks out, it never quite translates into letting go in the primal sense. But where the former fancies himself the charmer, the latter is a thinker. And it's in that cerebral arena that Black sometimes gets into trouble, wending his way through a verbal obstacle course. Birmingham Road's chief offender is "Noah's Ark," an insufferable acoustic weeper that finds Black mired in the sort of embarrassing Biblical metaphor best left hidden in a desk drawer. "If I ever get to heaven / I'll admit I doubt it some / I'll tell them everything that happened / And ask them why it took so long," goes the chorus. Alas, in the face of such an ungainly premise, such spiritual introspection rings hollow. Chalk it up to the creative overreach that comes with inexperience.
Still, you have to applaud Black's focused intentions -- and, of course, that voice. This genius in the rough isn't afraid to address fallibility. "We lose a lot, I guess, in the name of aspiration / Gravity is sure to pull a number of us down," he sings on "A Long Way to Go." Humility like that can take you far. (***)