Hello, “Hello Nasty” — the Beasties’ “Exile on Main St.”

02Feb14

I’ve recently been enamored with the Beastie Boys’ “Hello Nasty,” and I’m not sure what took me so long to realize the skills involved? Actually, I’m not a guy who puts a high value on skill, as my love of the Ramones would prove. However “Nasty” certainly possesses much skills that pay many bills. I think my thinking on it changed due to a recent reading of the Continuum book on “Exile on Main St,” which put forth the theory that it was an album about musical thesis as much as about good song writing. It sounds crazy, but hear me out.

I think they are in many ways very similar. Not necessarily as the representative “best album” (I’ve never* heard it for the Beasties**, and even for the Stones it’s debatable). More like their best representation of what each band is about. They are their respective musical thesis statements.

Both albums are long, but in their length somehow come off better when taken all together as opposed to skipping around to little chunks. Some of the chunks (“Intergalactic,” “Tumblin’ Dice”) are fantastic chunks, but it’s that greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts-ness that makes both albums become, well, greater.

Another bit on the album length: both albums miss their closing number, in a way. For “Exile,” I bet most people would have concluded with “Shine a Light,” and I can hardly argue. It has all the earmarks of not only a classic album closer, but a classic Stones album closer. Its cousins are “Salt of the Earth,” “Moonlight Mile…” basically every album closer before this one. But instead, it goes for broke with one last rocker song in “Soul Survivor.”

Now, I want to qualify myself and point out that I love “Soul Survivor,” and its inclusion I do not begrudge. I think it has an air of finality that makes it a
suitable finale. But I also think that if you polled 100 experts, 86 of them would have elected to end with “Shine a Light” instead. “Soul Survivor” gets some power as a finale song only by way of that piano drum-up about three minutes in, just before the final remount of the chorus and outro.

With “Nasty,” the case feels even more obvious: they should have ended with “Unite.” The Beasties have habitually never had great album closers. They’re more of a trail-off type of group. And, again, I don’t dislike the three songs that come after “Unite,” but look at the evidence offered by that would-be closer: it’s a full-fledged wrap song, it preaches a feel-good message of togetherness, and it includes a fantastic line about the Beasties themselves in “We’re the scientists of sound/we’re mathematically putting it down.” It’s a rousing song with all the trademarks of an album closer. Yet for whatever reason (possibly over stimulation or over-inspiration), both the Beasties and the Stones cannot help themselves, and try to keep the party going a little longer.

Back to the thesis statement thing; this is the reason why “Hello Nasty” took its time to grow on me, and why I was a little slower to embrace “Exile” as opposed to, say, “Sticky Fingers.” “Paul’s Boutique” often gets labeled the Beastie’s masterpiece, and while that may be, I do not think it represents the band for what they are/were. “Boutique” is a rap album, and a rap album only. There are no instrumentals or punk songs, which the band would incorporate on their very next album, “Check Your Head.” While the instrumentals and punk songs were rarely seen as the most essential stand-alone cuts on a Beastie record, they did come to define what a 1990’s Beastie Boys album was. As they evolved, the Beasties honed their musical absorption, mixing genres and styles to not only make rap songs, but to make different kinds of songs, styles and sounds. “Paul’s Boutique” does not represent what I think of as The Beastie Boys because it does not incorporate the vast menagerie. By the middle of their career, the Beasties were politically and musically all about inclusion, and “Hello Nasty” exemplifies this better than any of their other albums.

For the Stones, it’s almost the opposite. Prior to 1972, they had tried a variety of rock and pop styles, but for “Exile,” they were deeply trenched and focused on the blues, country and soul music. “Exile” is the very opposite of “Hello Nasty.” There are very few hairpin turns, musically speaking. In some cases, it almost feels like an album-long single song, mere variations on a theme. Today, in 2014, can anyone think of a better definition for the Rolling Stones career
than “playing the same song over and over again?”

The grand point is that, up to now, I had been underestimating and mishearing “Hello Nasty.” I was listening to it as a collection of tracks, but it is a true album. I know I’m verging dangerously close to pretention, but “Nasty” is almost the Beastie Boys’ “master suite,” with each sound not only informing the surrounding sounds, but depending on them, too. Held up for comparison as stand-alone tracks, the album cut of “Body Movin'” is not up to the level as the single, Fatboy Slim version. Except on the album, surrounded by the preceding tracks, where it fits perfectly. This is similar to the way “I Just Wanna See His Face” works as an album cut, and less as a stand-alone track. These are albums created by artists behaving artistically. They have personality and life and quirks and obsessions, and a reallike-it-or-leave-it attitude. They’re great. I’m glad I finally caught up.
*But I have heard a lot of unfavorable comparisons to “Paul’s Boutique.” Some unfavorably, calling “Hello Nasty” a “lazy” album. This makes me think that if you believe “Paul’s Boutique” is their masterpiece, then you are less likely to enjoy “Hello Nasty.” That’s not saying a fan of “Paul’s Boutique” cannot enjoy “Hello Nasty.” Obviously there can be only one Number One, but I bet the people who were quicker to embrace “Boutique” were less quick to embrace “Nasty.” I, however, am not one of those people.

**While it’s not a hard rule for the Continuum series, it stands to reason that most of the albums covered are considered the best of that particular artist. And what’s ironic about me using the Continuum book on “Exile” is because that same series covered — and essentially canonized — “Paul’s Boutique.”

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