Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Paul's Boutique revisited ...

Posted By on Tue, Mar 17, 2009 at 5:13 PM

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It was a bright summer morning in 1989 and I was rushing out the door to go climb a fence at a vacant house across town with a couple of local hooligan friends. The night before we had discovered an empty swimming pool in the backyard of a vacant house across town and were bound and determined to go carve around in it on our skateboards all day, or at least before the neighbors called the cops. I was almost out of the house when my attention was caught by the television. The video for "Hey Ladies" was on MTV and I had to stop and watch. Years had passed since the Beasties' License to Ill had lost status with my juvenile ears as the greatest albums of all time. By the summer of '89 I had moved onto Minor Threat, the Dead Kennedys, the Misfits. Did I really need another go-around with the Ad Rock, MCA and Mike D?

Indeed I did. But in retrospect I was tapped into the collective unconscious and didn't think they could top Licensed to Ill, nor did I even care that much at the time. Despite critical raves, Paul's Boutique never grabbed the attention of anyone that I knew. At least not until years later when the massive success of Check Your Head made the world go back and take another listen.

I bought the album the next time I went to the mall -- cassette actually, and studied it inside and out. The liner notes were full of frustrating typos and incorrect lyrics, but it still became an essential edition of the soundtrack for skate boarding, summertime road trips, drugs, and just general hanging out, which usually involved some combination of all of the above.

Twenty years later it's hard to imagine that this is the same album that is so often vilified for pillaging a glut of uncleared samples, thus opening the floodgates for intellectual property laws to ruin it for the rest of us. Nevertheless, the countless samples that make Paul's Boutique the work of genius that it is, pretty much made it impossible for another album like it to be made ever again, at least not by legal means.

I was unaware of these deeper affects on pop culture at the time. When it was new I could listen to the whole thing from beginning to end, flip it over and give it another go without batting an eye. These days I have no patience for the lull of "To All the Girls." More often than not I skip through to "Johnny Royall," "Egg Man," then it's on to "What Comes Around" and "Shadrach."

These songs are a Dylan-esque in-scope, which came as an impressive feat when considering that prior to this album the group was introduced to the world via "Fight For Your Right (to Party)" and "No Sleep 'til Brooklyn."

One "bonus" feature of the reissue is a download of a 53-minute, track-by-track commentary on each song with all three Beastie Boys. The volume is low and at times it's like listening to a cocktail party. The stories behind "Johnny Royall" and "Egg Man" offer some insight, and some depth of character. Ad Rock tells a story about giving a satin Def Jam Records jacket (given to him by Russel Simmons), to the homeless guy after which the song "Johnny Royall" was named -- he was later bitched out when Simmons passed the homeless guy on the street and recognized the jacket. That's a pretty cool bonus, but 53 minutes of lo-fi chatter is an awful lot to take in at once.

The digital remaster job on the songs fleshes out the bass and all of the subtle jump cuts between samples and drum loops that click together with a gracefully cluttered aesthetic that mirrors the murky Brooklyn street scene on the cover. From top to bottom Paul's Boutique is a complete work of art. The Dust Brothers' production is the perfect platform for the Beastie's fast and furious rhymes and cartoonishly abstract associations. Reading between the lines in songs like "Johnny Royall," "Egg Man" and "Stop That Train" captures a gritty sense of life in the moment.

These guys had already experienced backstage hedonism on the level of Sodom and Gomorrah via Licensed to Ill. With Paul's Boutique they were on top of their game, and redeeming themselves, with a few slip ups ... "59 Chrystile St." is straight-up obnoxious, and even though "5 Piece Chicken Dinner" was hilarious when I was a kid, it is now just a speed bump before the God hammer drums of "Looking Down the Barrel of Gun" kick you in the head. Though they hadn't quite reached the cruising altitude they would hit with Check Your Head and Ill Communication, but the path was becoming clear.

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