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The hiatus is back off, again, for the Beastie Boys, and music lovers will bob their heads with insuppressible glee. With its Nice & Smooth impersonations and shout outs to Brooklyn's Albee Square Mall, To the 5 Boroughs, their first album in six years, harkens the return of the trio to the city that made them who they are today. It's an up-tempo yet surprisingly homogenous assemblage of vintage electro-style party beats, and it's a strictly Beastie affair: the Boys co-wrote and produced each track themselves, which means that it sports none of the sonic fripperies and quirky collaborations that distinguished previous classics such as Paul's Boutique. Finally jelling after two years of on-again, off-again recording, To the 5 Boroughs will appeal to those fans old enough to remember the Licensed to Ill tour. Those old-schoolers are sure to appreciate the album's mostly off-the-cuff lyrics and minimal-to-the-extreme musical landscape--even if its stripped-down sound may leave others longing for the days when the Boys were California dreamin'.
"You want to know what went wrong? First, remember one thing: the Beastie Boys have never been infallible. Listened to your Luscious Jackson records lately? Or even checked Check Your Head, that valiant effort to prove ""sloppy funk"" isn't an oxymoron, which rhymed ""commercial"" with ""commercial."" And yet, at the close of the last one-term Bush presidency, you wanted to believe-""you"" being a too-smart white kid attracted to the ideals of mainstream pop (mass democracy) and indie rock (resourceful DIY) but discouraged by the realities (pandering and insularity, respectively). Too curious not to root out fun subcultural obscurities yet too famous not to share their discoveries with the world, the Beasties came as close as anyone post-Beatles to approximating that all-but-impossible pop dream: all-inclusive cool.
You want to know what went wrong? Well, their taste in music hasn't dulled, though their sonic hues have darkened. If the snazzy electrobeats of Hello Nasty demanded your attention, these rhythms are adornments, sometimes creepy and subdued, like the Wu-Tang harpsichord on ""Right Right Right Now"" that fades into virtuoso scratching. But the Beasties can still collar you when they want, puncturing ""Ch-Check It Out"" with sublimely irritating blares then kicking into a break so funky it's got to have convinced them never to play their own instruments again.
You want to know what went wrong? Not their politics. The Boys' thesis is undeniable: Hip-hop is now officially the music of the people. Their corollary is heartening: The best antidote to the antisocial malaise now passing as rugged individualism is to get everyone dancing together. And not only do these privileged whiteboys come by their liberal guilt honestly, but unlike, say, Bruce Springsteen, they love New York for specific reasons. 1010 WINS. Live at 5. Not to mention subways, bridges and neighborhoods they could give you specific directions to get to.
You want to know what went wrong? Well. Maybe the Beasties are just thirty-somethings set adrift on memory bliss-their cultural references range from Mr. Furley to Miss Piggy, and when Ad Rock drops ""Please pass me the Reunite on ice"" you gotta wonder if someone swiped his TV before M*A*S*H went off the air. Maybe they're just symptomatic of a general lack of direction on the American left, rapping to the converted with ""We need a bit more gun-controllin'"" and ""Stop building SUVs."" Or maybe like most hipsters, they're a little embarrassed to be lecturing you-""George W's got nothing on we/ We've got to take the power from he"" is incontrovertible proof that shame and game have shaken hands here. And their desire for a positive, progressive attitude means their hearts are not in ""Hey F*** You."" So how do you express politics without lambasting your enemy? Well, good jokes are one obvious way. Yet only ""From the east coast so I don't say 'hella'"" whopped me upside my funny bone. I mean, if you can get a laugh from namechecking Sadaharu Oh, you've got to be able to exploit our Punchline-In-Chief.
You want to know what went wrong? So do the Beastie Boys. So do I. Drop us a line when you've got it all figured out. But for now, I'm half-inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, to pretend that a smarter and more energetic and more engaged electorate of consumers can bring down the jokers in charge. Because if the Beasties ever do eventually fumble that promise for good, I can't imagine what current culture icons would possibly retrieve it.