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Beastie Boys' newest is worthwhile, Def Leppard's a letdown

Your Head
Beastie Boys.
Capitol Records.

Def Leppard.
Geffen Records.

By Jon Jacobs
The Beastie Boys. Remember them? Most of us were in high school when we first heard the song "Fight For Your Right," off their debut album, License to Ill. My high school head-banger friends would hang out in the parking lot during class and thrash their heads to the guitar chorus -- performed, incidentally, by Slayer's guitarist.

Back then, the Beastie Boys stood for sex, weed, alcohol, and occasional violence. The bratty Boys were rich and popular and didn't care who knew it. Remember the dancing women in cages and the twenty-foot inflated penis at their concerts? (I forgot to bring my darts.)

Those things, like many other excesses of the 1980s, seem to have passed, and with their latest album, Check Your Head, we see that the Boys have been doing some serious examination themselves.

The new album is a pleasant surprise. Some of it is get-up-and-dance music (as in Paul's Boutique), and some of it has that metal edge that made License to Ill so popular. But regrettably, with some songs, the two styles just don't mix. The metal "edge" sounds forced, the beat doesn't blend, and frankly, it ends up sounding something like what Led Zeppelin might have sounded like at their first rehearsal. On my first run through the album, half of the songs sounded like junk that the Boys simply slapped together. When I listened to the album for a second time, however, I realized that they did in fact slap it together, but also that it sounded pretty good.

Mick Caldato, Jr. (the "fourth" Beastie) co-wrote six of the twenty new songs and produced the album with the Beastie Boys. His high school buddy, Mark Nishita, makes his debut on the keyboard and adds a funky, rhythmic organ sound to a few songs. With Nishita's excellent keyboards and Caldato's songwriting, some of this is great music. And the other songs can be used to annoy your floormates. Ted Nugent even co-produced a song, "Time For Livin'," that sounds like something you might hear on a Nirvana CD. In short, the album has many new sounds I never would have have expected from the Beasties. Some of it is actually mature and professional.

Evidently, so are the Beastie Boys themselves. According to an interview in Spin magazine, Adam Yauch now reads "spiritual literature." After hearing the lyrics, this is actually believable. Gone is their crass Brooklyn attitude. Gone is the abuse of alcohol and women. In their place are real music and genuine talent. But then again, this shouldn't be completely shocking. The critics raved about their last album, Paul's Boutique. Despite this praise, it didn't come close to matching License to Ill's financial success. Why not? It was probably too different from what what people expected -- more of License to Ill's rebellious metal/rap sound. Instead, the Beastie Boys' fans got an album with absolutely no metal that you could thrash your head to.

The Beastie Boys, searching for their musical identity, have stumbled onto some new sounds, most of which are worth checking out. I wouldn't run to the record store, but I would definitely walk.

Speaking of bands who are back, Def Leppard has finally finished their new album, Adrenalize -- only their fifth album in 15 years. Unfortunately, there's nothing very special about this album, including its name. I'm beginning to think that Joe Elliot thinks one word at a time -- Pyromania, Hysteria, Hystoria (their "rockumentary"), and now Adrenalize. What gives? Still, there are a few things to like about Def Leppard.

First, they always have plenty of reading material in their liner notes. One thing you've got to like about the band is that they always tell you how they're doing. One page in the enclosure is headed, "Life at the Top: October 1988 - March 1992." They always try (and usually don't succeed) to tell their audience what they've learned since they recorded their last album, and what they say is anything but thought-provoking. For example, "As we sit here and reflect on the last three and a half years, one thing is certain: nothing, NOTHING is ever certain." Even better is "There's more to being in a band than being in a band."

Much of the text in the insert takes a more serious tone. Adrenalize is dedicated to guitarist Steve Clark, who died of a fatal mix of drugs and alcohol in January 1991 after struggling with ten years of alcoholism. "The finality of Steve's death," it says in the enclosure, "the end of something that was a part of all of us forever, was in a way our starting point for this record. It cleared our heads; it woke us up; we knew we had to finish the record to prove that Def Leppard could survive."

Although I think that it's great that a band can still come back after all that, their music didn't really come with them. If you've got money to waste, waste it -- go out and buy Adrenalize. Otherwise, if you want to know what Adrenalize sounds like without spending any of your hard-earned dollars, go home and listen to Hysteria again.