Tag Archives: Beastie Boys

Little Critters: Obscurities – Country Mike, Ken, My Barbarian

This week we’ll be talking about obscurities on Critter Jams, so most of you will probably want to skip on past this one. By obscurities I mean albums you thought you’d never hear for one reason or another. I’m guessing none of these sold more than 500 copies and I don’t think either of the first two really intended to. Regardless, let’s take a dive:

Country Mike’s Greatest Hits (1999)

countrymikeOn the excellent Beastie Boys anthology Sounds of Science there are a couple of tunes credited to “Country Mike”, both of which were kind of dumb, but they stood out in a collection that was already fairly eclectic. In the liner notes there was some story about Mike hitting his head and waking up as a country singer, and if the other members of the band didn’t play along and let him record this album he could wind up dead. Clearly the story was fake and I doubted that Country Mike’s Greatest Hits ever actually existed. Sure enough the album is real; intended as a gag gift for friends and family, everything about Country Mike’s Greatest Hits suggests some forgotten bargain bin album. Really I think that’s part of the joke, that somewhere in the dollar bin in some small town thrift store exists this obscure album that was actually produced by the megastar Beastie Boys. That some unsuspecting teenager might buy this album because of its terrible cover, unaware of who was actually behind it. That’s the sort of humor the Beasties got off on (see also: their small-time tours as the punk band Quasar) but thanks to the internet Country Mike’s Greatest Hits is a thing you can actually hear now.

Anyway, the album itself really is as advertised; a bunch of terrible country songs which sees Michael Diamond sing in both a bad country drawl and an even worse falsetto. Some of the songs are just enough to get stuck in your head (“Railroad Blues”, “Country Christmas”, “We Can Do This” which is hilariously staged as “live” with constant cheering throughout). Outside of “Country Mike’s Theme” there’s no sign of the other Beasties – Mix Master Mike adds some record scratches to “Country Delight” (a send-up of “Rapper’s Delight”) but that’s about it. The best thing you can say about it is that it’s charming; it’s not trying to necessarily be funny, it’s just the honest result of the Beasties taking a day or two to record a legit country album. Should you, devotee of all things Beastie, track down a copy? I mean, if you’ve got nothing better to do for forty minutes, yeah, but keep in mind that half the joke is that nobody would ever hear it.

 

Ken – By Request Only (1976)

By Request Only is a true internet success story. The albumken spent years as a regular feature on those infamous “Worst Album Cover” lists, but like most such albums, nobody knew a thing about it. What makes this one special is that there was even less information out there – half the cover is given to Ken’s enormous, perfect face, and his decision to go simply as “Ken” made it a lot harder to figure out who the guy actually was. It certainly felt like Ken, who apparently plays his songs by request only, was a big deal somewhere. Alas, Ken was a total mystery – there was no evidence that this album actually existed; it wasn’t listed anywhere, and the album only seemed to exist for its cover to crop up over and over on those lists. I mean, all these albums were obscure, but Ken was unique in that apparently nobody had ever heard it, period. Who the hell was Ken, anyway? Was he even a real person? How did this (mint condition) cover image make its way online? Was it all some kind of hoax? If not, does the real Ken know how much of a legend he became online?

By Request Only is also an example of how the internet ruins mystique. After improbably finding a copy on eBay, a couple of people noticed that the newly unearthed back cover contained the man’s phone number, and by some stroke of luck the number still worked, allowing these internet detectives to actually call the man at his house. To answer these questions – yes, he’s real, and he’s a pastor in Iowa. The album was self-released and sold out of the back of his van, and therefore wouldn’t be listed anywhere online. He’s aware that the album was considered to have one of the worst covers of all-time but had no idea how big a deal it was until he was informed that the copy in question went for 150 bucks.

Unfortunately, the music on By Request Only is pretty much where the joke ends. While before you could only speculate on the music contained within (I always assumed it was a disco album), the reality is that it’s a rather bland country-gospel album. Despite the fact that his Ned Flanders voice matches his Ned Flanders appearance there’s not a whole lot funny about it. “Modern Religion” is probably the closest chance the music had at going viral, with it’s almost-funk beat and scornful lyrics – “When you go to church on Sunday/You let them know who you are/As soon as the service is over/You head for the nearest bar”. That’s about as fire as Ken gets; otherwise most of the lyrics are made up of stuff like “He left his home in glory/to bring me redemption story”.

When I was in high school, sophomore year, I had a print-out copy of this album cover in my locker. I thought it was funny and everyone else thought it was weird, so it pretty much did its job. This was back in 2002. I never thought there was ever a chance I’d actually get to hear the album. I never thought I’d see the day that it would gather 65 reviews on RateYourMusic or be posted in full on YouTube (which didn’t exist in 2002, but you get the point). Now that it is, I kind of feel like the joke is over, the air’s been let out of the tires a bit; Ken is just some dude who self-released an album of original gospel songs. Still, kudos for actually tracking this guy down. I guess we’ll always have Country Church.

 

My Barbarian – Cloven Soft-Shoe (2004)

clovenMy Barbarian are an LA-based performance art collective that are difficult to figure out; they do the sort of self-important brand of theater which is overwrought and full of symbolism and allegory, but it’s unclear how seriously they take the whole thing. A good example is the “Unicorns LA” video; diving face-first into low budget fantasy land, it’s unclear if it’s supposed to be funny or if it just is. I feel like it tips its hand with the dice-rolling overlay and the finale with the three members of the band dancing on the park bench, but then again maybe not. The song stuck in my head enough to buy this disc off Amazon for the totally reasonable price of one penny, and if you act now, you can too (plus postage and handling, naturally). That means it didn’t have to live up to much – hell if there was just one other song I’d want to hear again I’d consider it a win.

It’s tough to talk much about My Barbarian based off this CD since most of it is meant to be part of a longer performance piece. They’re not musicians, or actors, or really anything, as their list of projects is so strange and eclectic that you never can quite figure out what their deal is. “Unicorns LA” doesn’t represent the rest of the disc, but the rest of the songs aren’t bad. The band itself is kind of bare-bones, with bass, drums, and one hell of a cheap synth, over which you’ve got three different singers who more or less take turns. A lot of times they sort of fall into a dirge but the hooks are generally there. “Morgan Le Fay” is the standout, just a great pop song with a chorus that won’t leave your head. Though once again you’re probably better off watching the video, which also raises more questions than it answers, but in a good way. Otherwise there are several songs I like – “Upstairs”, “Bette”, and “Dance You Witches (Dance)”, which is a brief B-52’s send-up. The members of the band are constantly lapsing in and out of character which further confuses the point. So really you’ve just got to take it as-is; most of the time it’s too out there to really connect, but there are some gut-punch moments like the answering machine message on “Erik”.

Really, I just wanted to mention this album because nobody else has. There’s not a whole lot to recommend about it but it’s still worth every penny. If you live in an area where My Barbarian performs, go see them, because based on what I can see on YouTube, they really are something special.

Beastie Boys – Hello Nasty (1998)

beastI’ve avoided listening to the Beasties ever since Adam Yauch’s death – almost two years ago.  I have – as so many others – struggled to pinpoint exactly why this one hit so hard.  It’s not like I listened to them often, or that they were still making albums that I really liked.  But there’s something about the way the Beasties presented themselves; the way they handled success, the way they evolved as artists and as people, their sense of humor, and their willingness to do whatever they thought sounded good, regardless of whether or not it fit their personas; it was almost as if we knew them.  As a teenager, there was a point where I listened to Beastie anthology Sounds of Science on a near-daily basis.  The cover was a photo of Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D., dressed as old men, walking down the street, presumably talking about the same old bullshit – it seems so impossibly sad now. In such a youth-dominated genre, the Beasties were one of the few who seemed to actually embrace the concept of middle-age.

Not that I’ve wanted to think about it much.  But still, now and again, I marvel at how good these guys had it.  They were not exactly some great talent; regardless, a novelty single led to them getting into the right spot at the right time, they got picked up by Rick Rubin and produced Licensed to Ill, a dumb but nevertheless semi-classic album that eventually sold 9 million copies.  While they’ve since distanced themselves from that LP (Sounds of Science notably does not contain “Girls”, even though it’s easily one of their three most well-known songs), they kept the audience, and have followed their every whim since.  Since then, every album they’ve done has gotten than “huh, so this is what the Beasties sound like now” treatment – Paul’s Boutique, whose usage of the sample-crazy Dust Brothers wound up revolutionizing hip-hop as we know it today, Check Your Head, in which the Beasties dropped all outside producers, picked up their instruments, and did some kind of hip-hop/alt-rock hyrbid, and Ill Communication, which threw everything into a blender, creating an album with such a wide latitude that it allowed hardcore punk and MCA’s declaration of his newfound devotion to Buddism to sit right next to each other.

I missed all that.  I had just turned 13 when it came out and if I remember correctly it was the 3rd CD I ever bought, next to Ghost in the Machine by The Police and The Presidents of the United States of America.  I had no idea about the Beasties, though I did know “Fight For Your Right” and “Brass Monkey”, and, most importantly, I loved “Intergalactic”, especially the video.  I saw the CD in the store, read the tracklisting, and thought, “Wow!  22 songs!  Many with funny titles!”  I actually walked away, got a couple blocks down and thought “Negotiation Limerick File…that sounds really awesome”, went back and bought it.  Little did I know that the backlash had started – Beastie Boys albums were always a little wacky, but this album, their first in four years, was the first since Licensed to Ill in which they didn’t seem to be taking it seriously at all.  Furthermore, it represented a lot of what was wrong with CDs in the late 90’s – it was too long, had only one real good single, seemed to be obviously frontloaded, and contained too much dicking around.

Now all of these things are arguably true, but I still love this album anyway.  The album’s length is no issue to a 13-year old with two CDs outside of his parent’s collection; I liked the dicking around, the queasy non-songs like “And Me” and “Dr. Lee, Ph.D”.  As far as having only one good single goes – hey, that was just what the critics said, though I sure as hell couldn’t remember another single getting any kind of airplay.  The Fatboy Slim remix of “Body Movin” ruled though.  Anyway, none of this seemed to affect the album’s popularity.  Despite the fact that it only hit #28, “Intergalactic” was all over the place that summer, with music magazines and VH1 constantly remarking about how the Beasties were more relevant than they’d been since Licensed to Ill.  You can see why so many latched onto it – compared to Ill Communication (which, released four years prior, must’ve felt like half a lifetime ago), it’s much friendlier and less alienating, with goofball experimentation in lieu of punk songs or any serious statements whatsoever.  It was as though the Beasties were getting a lifetime achievement award – suddenly they were playing “Sabotage” and “Hey Ladies” on the radio again, songs I didn’t remember ever hearing before, meanwhile my classmates were picking up new copies of Check Your Head and Ill Communication, essentially experiencing the evolution of the Beastie Boys in reverse.

On Hello Nasty, for once, the Beasties don’t exactly feel like leaders, because really, who would want to make an album like thisCheck Your Head had plenty for hip-hop groups and rock bands alike, but on Hello Nasty they are firmly in “whatever works” territory, exploring a path that’s entirely their own.  There is some redundancy here (who didn’t notice that “3 MC’s and 1 DJ” was just a really stripped down “Intergalactic”?) but for the most part every song is allowed to be its own thing.  On their last two, you had the hip-hop tracks and the punk songs and the instrumentals, but here the boxes are even smaller.  How exactly, do you classify a piece of distorted musical theater like “Song For the Man”?  The unsettling, incessant honking of “And Me”?  The straight up, flutes-and-all lounge lizard jazz of “Picture This”?  For once, the Beasties are called on to actually sing, and they respond by either distorting their voices into oblivion, or singing in sort of a whisper (is that MCA on “I Don’t Know”?  Ad-Rock on “Instant Death”?)  There are a number of references to old-school hip-hop here, but they don’t play anything straight – most of the tunes are plastered with space-age sound effects and buzzy, electronic ambience, as though they gained access to the entire library of Star Trek sound effects.  Even “Flowin’ Prose”, the album’s one real inward-looking statement, is dominated by vocal effects on every single line, pinging MCA’s voice every which way.  There are guitars, three types of organs (church, hockey, and carnival), a full-time DJ (who is everywhere on this album), samples from old instructional tapes, three percussionists, one guy on alto sax (which track is this?), vocal cameos by Biz Markie, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Miho Hatori alike.

This abundance of session men and guest spots makes this really unpredictable – on some tracks (“Song for Junior”, “Picture This”, “Dr. Lee, Ph.D”) it sounds like the Beasties have no involvement at all.  That’s one way to maintain interest through a nearly 70-minute album – they’re always moving, always switching it up, flangulating the hell out of everything (my one word review: “wocka-wocka-woop-woop-woop”), deploying absurdist humor on nearly every tune.  Maybe not on the gorgeous ballad “I Don’t Know” (who knew they had that one in ’em?) nor the unsettling closer “Instant Death”, but otherwise, nothing’s played straight.  And hell, I’m just going to say it, there’s just as many great lines on here as there were on Paul’s Boutique; maybe nothing particularly profound, but when they’re on, the cleverness is off the charts.

Still, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what this album’s legacy is.  When Yaucht died, people talked a lot about four albums; Licensed to Ill (“I played that LP 300 times in college!”), Paul’s Boutique (“Nothing was the same after that!”), Check Your Head and Ill Communication (“That record changed my life, man”).  I don’t know why Hello Nasty got overlooked – it sure as shit was important to me.  Do you have any idea how many games of Goldeneye I played to this thing?  On one hand though, I do get it; it’s a really fun album and it features a lot of awesome lyrics, but where’s the deeper meaning?  Where’s the spirituality, where’s the power, where’s the innovation?  On the other – who needs any of that?  Hello Nasty is what the Beasties were to me – it’s absurd, it’s scatterbrained, and it’s way beyond the scope of what you’d expect from a hip-hop group.

Listening to it now is kind of a surreal experience – I must’ve played this a hundred times as a teenager.  This year it will turn 17.  I don’t feel qualified to comment on how it’s held up over the years, as I know nearly every word, scratch, and squonk by heart.  I listen to it now, and I can hear what some of the criticism was about – it does lose steam after the ninth or so track, though there are lots of moments of greatness that follow. My 13-year old self didn’t really care about that though; of all the CDs I bought in those middle school years, this was easily the one with the most stuff in it, and for my $14.99 that was all that mattered.  Even now, I love how downright entertaining and kaleidoscopic this disc is all the way through, with something new to catch your attention every 10 seconds.  And best of all, they did it without hopping any trends; it’s unlike any other hip-hop released in the late-90’s, or really anything that’s come since.  With a legacy secure and nothing to prove, the Beasties just got weird and had fun doing it.   Like many, may people have said, the Beastie Boys didn’t have much to offer after this – their next album would come six years later (I was almost 20!) and there just wasn’t the same impact.  But so what?  For those who love the Beasties, it seems to come down to that moment in time where nothing else hits the spot, where even the flaws in their work make you love it that much more.  And when you hit that level, they’ll always be legends to you.