On Age and Music: New Albums from Small Brown Bike and The Beastie Boys

The Beastie Boys
Hot Sauce Committee Vol 2
Capitol Records

In terms of Rock and Roll History, Pop Music History, we live in very strange times. Personally, I think we can blame all of this on Jane’s Addiction. In 1992 they broke up, siting everything from drug abuse to artistic incompatibility to drug abuse to Dave Navarro’s eyeliner problem. Then, a meager five years later, Jane’s Addiction reunited (sans Eric Avery and adding Flea on bass) and thus began the lucrative, reunion tour concept. It happened to occur the same time Ozzy pulled himself up off the couch, abandoning Zakk Wylde and rejoining Black Sabbath, which lasted almost a decade and coincided with the Black Sabbath reunion with Dio. Either way, it seems the problem started in 1997, all these glorious bands of the past reforming after extended haitus to play the old songs, release odds and sodds collections and then, eventually, make new albums.

The really strange aspect about all of this is when DIY, punk, hardcore, whatever type bands started doing this. Sure, it took a while, but eventually all the darlings of the late 1990’s that crumbled in the 21st century started putting down the AARP magazine and started trying to be bands again. Coalesce, Unrest, Lifetime…the list is endless of mid-level, cult-successful bands burrying whatever bad beef occurred and started playing for the kids. Problem is most of the kids were old.

I’m not gonna lie. I was really excited to see Unrest and Lifetime play. They were bands I loved that I got into just as they were dissolving and never got a chance to see them live. But I am continually wondering, how after grad school, failed businesses, kids, distance and everything else life puts between people, how these reunions are even worth the minimum effort. Most of the time they offer a lot of man hours in preparation for one show or a short tour. It’s been almost five years since the last Lifetime reunion and they are playing The Fest 10 in Gainesville this year. I think post punk darlings Braid are even giving it another little go and it’s been equally as long since they did a reunion tour.

Granted, this does not directly apply to the Beastie Boys. They never broke up, but it has been seven years since the miserable To The 5 Boroughs and even longer since they put out an album that is totally mind bending. Frankly, in my not so humble opinion (and that is what you are here for in case you didn’t know) they’ve been on a downhill slide since Ill Communication which had some big hits, but was a lot of filler and a more glossy version of the legendary Check Yo’ Head. What does apply to the Beastie Boys that applies to a lot of these other bands however is the passage of time and how it effects their art.

To The 5 Boroughs is an unlistenable. Did you catch that? The album straight up sucked. As far as I was concerned it was the death wail of one of the most interesting, hardworking, mainstream rap groups to ever exist. As many weird issues as I had with Hello Nasty I can still get down with that record. But To The Five Boroughs displayed a group whose youth, energy and passion seemed to have left them. It sounded like a bunch of 40 year old white dudes trying to rap and be relevant. And when you try to be relevant, you fail.

So now, we have, nearly a decade later, the New York trios latest. You can read elsewhere people saying this is a return to form. But I’m not going to tell you that. The Hot Sauce Committee Part Two is a solid, ass shaking effort. But it’s as much a celebration of past glories as anything else they have done since 1992. For a band known for constantly reinventing themselves and the concepts critical to hip-hop music, this album just seems like a ping back to past glories. “OK” plays like a Hello Nasty b-side, with this terrible alliteration the punch line to the lyrics. I expect a little bit more. The punk rock as rap song that could be responsible for so much bad music also makes a return in “Lee Majors Comes Again” where the trio takes turns trading off verses over a mid-tempo, punkish power drive of a song, which wouldn’t be so bad if the repetition of the music didn’t get so redundant by the 3:43 it takes to get to the end. It’s an old trick that served them well on “Mullethead” the awesome Check Yo Head b-side, but here it just fails. With all this though, Nas has never sounded more relaxed and serves as one of the best guests in awesome guests the Beastie Boys have had. “Too Many Rappers” plays like a dirty boom-bap rap, similar to DC style with the Beastie signature all over it.

Small Brown Bike
Fell and Found
No Idea Records (full stream available)

Small Brown Bike were a Michigan band that made good in the mid-90’s into the next decade. I always felt they got buy more on charm then on being an amazing band, but I do think Dead Reckoning is a pretty excellent and accurate album for it’s time period. I was never a huge fan, their music just a bit too relaxed and pretty against some of their contemporaries like Braid or lyrically not quite as poetic as a Promise Ring. But they were a hard working, DIY touring machine.

Not too long after they broke up, the Michigan quartet’s name kept popping up on the marquee of some of punk rocks hi-profile festivals. It seemed like slowly, and with less fever, the band was making a comeback. They even released a pair of really strong 7″s on their former label No Idea Records. Then the inevitable announcement came, the original members were getting the itch once again and a new album would be written and recorded. At the helm was none other than J. Robbins.

The product of their reunion is Fell & Found, an eleven song outing of well recorded, and well meaning rock songs. J. Robbins as always does wonders and vocally, Small Brown Bike has never sounded better. One could even say they never really had great vocals in comparison. A lot of doubled up vocals and melodies, featured heavily on “Fell & Found (The Walk)” make it almost sugary, the way J. likes it. But it never fails to sound like it’s being faked or doctored in the studio.

On Repeat from part zoo on Vimeo.

But over all, the album just feels too precious to me. The band had a little bit of grit to them, like any new band that doesn’t really know what they’re doing. But every song on Fell & Found is just too comfortable, even for Small Brown Bike. They’re all pretty songs, with crisp, glittery guitars. All the drums and bass take a mostly supportive role and never really get things rumbling and started. There’s nothing here that kicks my ass. It’s a medium temperature swirling in my ears, more inclined to relax me then get me psyched up.

Our time on earth, perceived and presented in a fascist linear often puts unfair context to our art and culture. Sometimes too we mistake this context for biological age. Rock and Roll gets old, the cellular constructs of it’s once abled bodies don’t regenerate the same. Our bodies move differently, slower or with odd ticks due to injury, hours of labor or something else equally unfortunate. The fresh breath of creativity that we often find in our younger lives becomes increasingly harder to tap into. Old glories are sought in an effort to reevaluate relevance or in attempts to reinvent ourselves. Sometimes, something new comes out of it.

Maybe I have the Small Brown Bike thing all wrong. Maybe it’s comfortable and calculated because it’s what the four guys in the band want right now, or always wanted and only the new experiences and growth could bring them here. I’m not sure I can be as forgiving to the Beastie Boys. It’s not as if The Hot Sauce Committee Part Two isn’t a pleasant listen, it’s just not an overly exciting one. I’d love to say that it’s due to too high expectations, but frankly, past albums have numbed me a bit for this one. Worst of all, the accompanying movie short Fight for Your Right (revisited) plays on the notions of age, past glory, and beats of old. It’s almost like they knew that this wasn’t a new step forward, just a different perspective on a story already told. But what does time have to say for this band? Where do they go from here? Or, given age and illness, does Hot Sauce Committee Part Two stand as a swan song. The Beastie Boys are resilient, proving that they at least have the desire. And lets face it, as hard as I am on them here, there still making music in the mainstream that is far more interesting and enjoyable then the seas of Lady Gaga’s, Ke$ha’s, Jessie J’s, Lady Minaj’s and whatever else the kids are into these days. But when gravity starts to get the best of us, when all those synapse and molecules slow, turning it out, up and on seems to get harder. Life is cruel.

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