When a band has been around for more than 30 years, it’s often because it’s (a) continued to evolve, (b) been mining one song or album repeatedly, (c) developed a cult following that will pay to see it no matter what or (d) is too stubborn to go away. And if you’re the Beastie Boys, you’ve done all of the above and then some.
On “Hot Sauce Committee Part 2” (amazingly, only the venerable N.Y.C. trio’s eighth full-length record), the Beasties’ weird, wise-cracking spirit shines brighter than it has in years. And if that spirit is no longer groundbreaking or even particularly original, the top five or six tracks here are on par with the band’s best work.
The fat synth line that opens “Make Some Noise” rides atop a no-frills beat and announces the trio will be playing to its familiar strengths: a sinewy rap-rock concoction stirred by distinctive, overlapping voices. The band stretches the formula taut on the brawny “Too Many Rappers” (featuring Nas) and “Say It,” which seesaws on creaky guitar feedback. The most effective flavoring to the core Beastie recipe, though, comes from dub: “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” is a scintillating duet with Santigold (and the record’s best track), while “Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament” is slithering and spooky — one of the band’s best-ever instrumentals.
The boys get lost a few times along the way, and the flat second track, “Nonstop Disco Powerpack,” is actually cringe-inducing. But at its heart — “Long Burn the Fire,” featuring a stirring turn from Adam Yauch, who was treated for cancer during the making of the album — the Beastie formula sounds vibrant, cohesive and, yeah, still saucy.
— Patrick Foster
Recommended tracks: “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win (featuring Santigold)”, ”Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament,” “Long Burn the Fire”
It’s been a few years since we’ve heard from Fleet Foxes, but Robin Pecknold’s lyrics make it seem like it’s been decades. At just 25 years old, the golden-voiced frontman of 2008’s breakout folk band is in full reflection mode on the band’s much-anticipated follow-up. “So now I am older than my mother and father / When they had their daughter” are the first words out of his mouth on “Montezuma,” the title itself a reference to a fallen empire. “Oh man, what I used to be,” Pecknold laments during the chorus over sweet, reverb-flecked guitar, as angelic backing vocals descend upon him.
It’s a shift from the doe-eyed innocence of “Ragged Wood,” from the band’s debut, making for a darker shade of Fleet Foxes. But beams of light in the form of Pecknold’s voice and his bandmates’ stirring harmonies still serve as the overwhelming foundation of the band’s sound. No matter the musical accompaniment — or even the occasional lack of one — the vocals remain so captivating that it’ll take more than some slightly down lyrics to stop it from being an uplifting album.
“Helplessness Blues” is all forms of ’70s AM gold but never gets so breezy as to become background music. The insistent bounce of “Battery Kinzie” is one of the disc’s liveliest moments and seems to contradict Pecknold singing, “I woke up a dying man without a chance,” but his warm voice makes it sound like a pleasant morning. Mostly, the arrangements are elegantly adorned, if not terribly inventive, but there’s no point distracting from the main event. And while the eight-minute chamber-folk experiment “The Shrine/An Argument” confirms that Fleet Foxes have yet to write their “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” they still have songs that will similarly stand the test of time.— David Malitz
Recommended tracks: “Helplessness Blues,” “Montezuma,” “Battery Kinzie”
There was the illness, still a mystery, that sidelined the Queen of Soul last year and that awkward, endless Grammy tribute. The lack of new material has also been worrying: Until now, Franklin hadn’t released a new, non-compilation disc since 2003’s “So Damn Happy.”
“Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love,” available exclusively at Wal-Mart and Walmart.com for the next month and through various digital outlets after that, was executive-produced by Franklin, recorded for Franklin’s own label and appears to indulge every wrong musical instinct Franklin has ever had. This is the sound of a legend doing exactly as she pleases, which in Franklin’s case means plenty of lite R&B ballads and underdone covers of overdone standards, such as “The Way We Were.”
Franklin’s miracle of a voice remains essentially intact, though she is no longer the matter-of-fact belter of old, relying instead on either Christina Aguilera-style oversinging or a weird, marble-mouthed mumble. There’s a near-flawless rendition of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” (taken from her performance at President Obama’s inauguration) and an encouraging opening track (“How Long I’ve Been Waiting”), but “Aretha” is otherwise a muddy-sounding hot mess of an album.
“Aretha” could have used some help, either from the sort of guest-starring young’uns, such as Fantasia or Mary J. Blige, whose presence has always raised her game, or from a seasoned hand such as Clive Davis: someone, anyone, to rescue “Aretha” from its own worst impulses.— Allison Stewart
Recommended tracks: “How Long I’ve Been Waiting,” “My Country, ’Tis of Thee”