Mark Twain once observed that it’s “better to be a young June-bug than an old bird of paradise.” That’s not far from the truth: young buggers like Kelly Clarkson get more media attention than they can handle while wilier, older birds are left preaching to the converted. And in hip-hop, that’s truer perhaps than anywhere else. All of which would bode poorly for BEASTIE BOYS if the shape-shifting trio were truly “hip-hop.” After all, Adam Yauch (it’s painful at this point to call him by his nom de rap, “MCA”) will be 42 in August, and he’s been proudly sporting a head of gray hair for a decade now. But Yauch and his fellow Beasties — Mike D (né Diamond) and Ad-Rock (a/k/a Adam Horovitz) — left hip-hop behind in its purest form a long time ago: their second album, the 1989 Dust Brothers–produced Paul’s Boutique (Capitol), did more to anticipate the cut-and-paste postmodern direction pop would take in the ’90s than any other ’80s album. Yeah, they were still rapping, and they’ve done so on and off ever since. But beginning with 1992’s Check Your Head (Capitol), they went back to the rock instruments they’d played as a hardcore band when they first came outta Vassar. Check Your Head’s hits were rap, and that made it easy to write off the keyboard-laced grooves they’d begun to explore with Money Mark. By ’96, however, there were enough of those instrumental tracks to fill an album, The In Sound from Way Out! It just wasn’t clear at the time how well those instrumental jams would serve the Beasties.
It’s been only three years since the Beasties last rapped, on 2004’s To the 5 Boroughs (Capitol), an album that came across as a final salute to old-school hip-hop. It was certainly the first Beasties disc that looked more to the past than to the future. And if the trio aren’t certain about the future, they’ve come up with a perfect stop-gap measure in The Mix-Up (Capitol), which abandons hip-hop altogether. Instead, Diamond (drums), Horovitz (guitar), and Yauch (bass) are joined by Money Mark and percussionist Alfredo Ortiz on a dozen wordless, pan-cultural funk tunes that draw on the same menu of influences that informed The In Sound from Way Out! but go down easier. These aren’t mere filler, even if the disc doesn’t quite make a full-on statement of purpose. The Booker T.–style organ/guitar interplay (“B for My Name”), eerie dub echoes (“Succo de Tangerina”), and throbbing bass and wacka-wacka guitar (“The Electric Worm”) are a playful way for the trio to keep their seats at the alt-rock table while they figure out their next move.
Perry Farrell hasn’t been at that table quite as long as the Beasties, but he got a late start. And he’s been resilient, if not quite as consistent as the Beasties. SATELLITE PARTY — his latest incarnation after leaving Jane’s Addiction for Porno for Pyros and then returning to Jane’s Addiction — has been billed as the pairing of Farrell and Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt. But it’s not quite that simple: on their debut, Ultra Payloaded (Columbia), Satellite Party are more like three and a half bands in one. On the two tracks that feature New Order bassist Peter Hook, Bettencourt does his best to rein in the guitar heroics. Hook’s bass may be the most recognizable in all of rock, and Bettencourt seems to take his cues from the Edge as he follows Hook’s effects-laden lead in “Wish upon a Dog Star” and the even heavier “Kinky.”
The soundscape changes when Red Hot Chili Pepper bassist Flea joins the party for the slap-happy “Hard Life Easy,” a tune that finds Bettencourt lying low until it’s time to take a bluesy solo. When Bettencourt himself is playing bass, the guitars get heavier if not quite metallic. But when the DC-based electronic duo Thievery Corporation step in on “The Solutionists,” Bettencourt once again rides the groove. None of that is as shocking as when Farrell drops the veil of effects that usually surround his telltale voice and attempts to croon in the ballad “Awesome.” It’s more than just disconcerting — it’s downright silly. The next time Farrell throws a party, someone should make sure nothing like that happens again.
Meg and Jack White left the garage a long time ago. But even as their sound has grown bigger with each album, they’ve held onto the bloozy basics that fueled their initial rootsy forays as the WHITE STRIPES. Their new Icky Thump (Warner Bros.) is the biggest White Stripes production yet, with doubled and tripled guitars all over the place, organ filling in the spaces between Jack’s guitar and Meg’s drums, full-on mariachi horns on a gritty cover of the Patti Page–popularized “Conquest,” and humming bagpipes to go with what sounds like a mix of acoustic guitar and mandolin on the folky “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn.” Icky Thump opens by touching on one of the White Stripes’ primary sources, Led Zeppelin, with a title track on which Jack, in his best Plant-like wail, mentions “sittin’ drunk on a wagon to Mexico” and suggests, “Why don’t you kick yourself out, you’re an immigrant too.” The riff is pure Jimmy Page, and the organ runs hint at what John Paul Jones brought to latter-day Zep. So it’s not all that strange to hear the Stripes messing with Celtic folk (again on “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn”). But the infectious “Rag and Bone,” which has Jack and Meg going back and forth about some abandoned “stuff” they’ve found in a mansion somewhere, is pure playful nonsense that brings the Stripes right back to their Detroit roots. The couple could go on doing this forever simply by adding a new little twist to the plot every couple of years.