Even before our economy plunged into the toilet, I found myself buying fewer and fewer compact discs. Not to sound melodramatic, but I just can't afford to be blithely spending my money on music these days, especially given the limited amount of listening time my current lifestyle affords me. It's no big deal, really. In fact, while I certainly miss the time spent hitting the old downtown record shop circuit, there really isn't even that much that I'm looking for these days (and fewer places to look in anyway). Basically, I'm out of the loop. I try to stay apprised of the new stuff, but I've long since stopped trying to keep up with the hipsters. Nowadays, if you do find me disc-shopping, you're more likely to find me in the re-issues section than perusing the new releases rack. In many cases, though, that's even worse than buying the new stuff, as often I'm simply re-buying an album I've already owned in several formats, simply because it's been "re-mastered."
I know I've ranted about this before, but I'm of the opinion that this whole re-mastering thing is a scam, and one that I find myself falling for all too often. Nine times out of ten, the only really discernible result of a re-mastering is that the album is simply louder. After years and years of high volume abuse, hearing loss and tinnitus, my ears are simply too compromised and probably weren't sophisticated enough to begin with to divine the slight, pithy nuances one's supposed to encounter on a properly re-mastered disc. Sure, maybe you hear a bit more depth and clarity in the tracks, but rarely is the experience an epiphany. Again, most of the time, the album just sounds louder. That's fine and all, but does that really render a disc worthy of a re-purchase? Evidently so.
When news broke last week that an official closing date had been set for the Union Square Virgin Megastore, I took advantage of my kids' naptime on Saturday to go check out the sales. Sure enough, loads of titles were selling for ten bucks a pop. Again, while I wasn't searching for anything specific, I do like to look around and see what's out there. Finding nothing jumping out of the racks to catch my ear, I made for the exit when suddenly I spied it; the 20th Anniversary Edition of Paul's Boutique - Digitally Remastered. There was some other crap written on the sticker (I spied the word "bonus") and I couldn't help noticing that it came in a glossy, gatefolded digipack which lovingly replicated the original vinyl LP's artwork of a wide-angled panorama of a long-since vanished Ludlow Street. Even despite all my cynical reservations so meticulously detailed in the paragraphs above, I couldn't resist. At least it was only for ten bucks. I brought it to the register and bought it.
I've never been a particularly huge hip hop guy. While I may own and adore albums by artists like Public Enemy, Busta Rhymes, Wu-Tang Clan and LL Cool J (along with scores of largely forgotten discs by acts like Digital Underground, No Face, Funkdoobiest and Das EFX), I never really connected with hip hop in the way I identified with, say, heavy metal or punk rock. I'm sure I'd like a lot more hip hop if I put my mind to it, but even after working at MTV for a year and a half (where hip hop still rules the roost), I can't remember the last time a hip hop track really managed to capture my attention (probably "Bouncin' Back' by Mystikal, which sounded like an incongruously funky Tom Waits). But as far as I'm concerned, the Beastie Boys (who started off as a hardcore band, let's remember) have always transcended that genre's parameters to the point wherein they've practically become their own genre. Seriously, can you name another band like them?
I still vividly remember my first brush with Paul's Boutique. My friend Rob B. was deejaying at Fordham University's radio station, W.F.U.V. at the time, and the vinyl 12" of "Hey Ladies," the first single, was released some weeks in advance the album. I can't remember which of us got ahold of it, but I stopped in on one of Rob's late night shifts and we decided to play it on the air (without having even listened to it yet). Both Rob and I had been following the Beasties for some time, going so far as trying to sneak into a Madonna show at Radio City Music Hall on the Like A Virgin tour just to see them open for her. It had been a long while since License to Ill had made them notorious household names, and rumors of a startling change in direction abounded. The cover art on the single -- a fish-eyed photo of two painted girls in a patriotically-themed kitchen -- certainly gave few clues. Rob dropped the needle, cued it up and opened up the phone lines.
I remember being somewhat incredulous. It sounded nothing like the stentorian wallop of License to Ill (to say nothing of the amateurish prankster-rap of "Cookie Puss" or the buzzsaw thrash of Pollywog Stew). This was a totally new sound from the infamous trio, densely layered with dizzying loops, cowbells and a jubilant disregard for conventional structure. Even the rhymes were light years ahead of their earlier work. Between samples of Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz, " Edwin Starr's "War" and James Brown's "Funky President", Mike D, Adrock and MCA traded tongue-twisting lyrics that boasted more libidinously erudite cultural allusions than a horny Dennis Miller monologue. "Fight For Your Right to Party" this was not.
I'm not going to lie. I didn't dig it right away. It was just so... unexpectedly busy. When the album came out a couple of weeks later, I bought the cassette (remember those?) and immersed myself in it, determined to understand the Beastie Boys' new direction. About a week later, my friend Tim and I decided to drive out to Ohio to visit the college we'd both just graduated from a few months earlier. Said road trip was scored entirely by Paul's Boutique's complicated pastiche of sound.
It's striking that the Beasties had to move to Los Angeles in order to record an album that just reeks of New York City. Beyond the myriad references to NYC ephemera like St. Anthony's Feast, Bernard Goetz, the 6 Train, Orange Julius and Christie Street (to say nothing of that iconic, wide-angled cover shot of the corner of Ludlow & Rivington), the album just exudes the palpable vibe of New York City. I soon loved every nanosecond of it.
Anyway, blah blah blah. Paul's Boutique -- despite being the quintessence of "ahead of its time" -- left most of the Beastie Boys' fanbase at the time largely dumbfounded. Like many incalculably influential titles before it, the album was by and large a commercial failure. In time, however, Paul's Boutique has become justly regarded as a crucial milestone, largely for its deft production and mind-warping use of samples. The contributions of fabled production duo, The Dust Brothers cannot be overstated here. For a reasonably authoritative breakdown of the samples, loops, snippets, allusions and references within this layer-cake of an album, click here, and Paul Leroy's book on the making of the album for Continuum's 33 1/3 series is well worth checking out.
Paul's Boutique has remained one of my favorite albums of all time not only for its busily funky brilliance and its endearingly relentless penchant for potty-mouthed naughtiness (this album pre-dates the Beasties' age of egalitarian enlightenment) but also simply for its afore-mentioned New York flavor. It still acts as the perfect score for late night walks around Manhattan's dimly lit streets, evoking a bong-tinted whiff of a New York that is no longer recognizable.
Okay, enough with the hyperbolic history lesson. What's up with the re-master, you ask? Well, beyond being sheathed in the afore-mentioned glossy, gatefolded digipack (which is nice, but far from essential), the 20th Anniversary edition comes with a card that tells you how to download a track-by-track commentary by the Beasties themselves. Akin to the now-standard DVD special feature of having a film's director blather alongside scenes from his film, this lengthy, one-take piece may not be entirely illuminating (the number of recording sessions the band simply fails to remember is somewhat striking), but the trio's notorious wit makes it at least worth a single cursory spin. Mike D's observations, quips and asides alone --ruminating on fashion, cuisine and other cultural ephemera -- are highly entertaining. Passive fans probably won't make it through the entire fifty-plus minute discussion, but it is funny stuff.
Here's the thing, though: You don't have to have any special code or proof of purchase to obtain this track. Just go to the band's website and download it for free.
Back on the actual disc, there are no extra tracks. The re-mastered sound is -- again -- decidedly louder, but it's not like the original mastering was especially poor. There is still a dense layer of activity going on in these tracks with a surprising amount of space and depth to the sound. The only real difference I can honestly mention is that the album's closer, "B-Boy Bouillabaisse" -- a collage of short sketches and songs not unlike the one on side two of the Beatles' Abbey Road (also sampled here on "Sounds of Science") -- has been divvied up into nine separate cuts on the disc (as opposed to one long, twelve-minute one). Beyond that, it's the same album you already love. I'd have loved it if the disc came appended with era-appropriate b-sides like the entirely hilarious "Some Dumb Cop Gave Me Two Tickets Already" (otherwise known as "Mike D is in Love," originally on the b-side of the 12" single of "Shadrach"), but no such luck.
Anyway, if you don't own it, what's the matter with you? If you already have the original album, I don't know that you especially need this edition -- but it's probably better than most of the other garbage clogging up your disc shelves, so why not treat yourself?