As unassailable as the Beasties' early output might be, those albums also placed unreasonably high expectations on subsequent efforts. Hello Nasty put an engaging retro/electro-futurist spin on the Beastie sound in 1998, but offered more filler than any previous release. Another six years would pass before To the 5 Boroughs attempted a return to the crew's hip-hop roots, but the disc delivered only a handful of memorable tracks. Though the accompanying live show served as a dizzying reminder of the Beasties' onstage prowess having legendary local turntablist Mix Master Mike as their touring DJ certainly doesn't hurt the cause the lackluster disc begged the question: Have rap's longest-lived chameleons finally run out of steam?
The Beastie Boys' latest maneuver finds the trio entering a holding pattern by revisiting another step in their musical evolution. The hazy instrumentals of The Mix-Up bring longtime collaborator Money Mark Nishita back as a principal player; he contributes his signature Hammond B-3, Fender Rhodes, and analog synths, and he co-wrote every track on the album. Tempering the Starsky and Hutch-style funk favored on Check Your Head with elements of fuzzy psychedelia and spacious dub, the new tunes make for a pleasant if underwhelming listen. "The Gala Event" and "Off the Grid" stand out with their underlying tension and misterioso vibe, but otherwise the Beasties stick to a mellow soul-jazz vibe that could sorely use the radical diversity that has been the trio's trademark. Weaker moments like the Booker T. & the MGs' lite-groove of "Freaky Hijiki" and the faux-sitar-fueled "Dramastically Different" come off as barely fleshed-out sketches. It seems the group has gone from making theme songs for imaginary '70s slapstick cop shows to recording an actual soundtrack for a laid-back Sunday brunch.
More worrisome was word that the outfit's current tour would hit some of the most intimate venues the Beastie Boys have played in years, only to deliver what was billed as an "exclusive instrumental show" with the band instructing fans to "dress to impress" (the S.F. "gala event" takes place at the Warfield). Visions of vintage leisure suits getting ruined by die-hards trying to sneak in triple-stage bongs to power through a full evening of soporific jams immediately came to mind. As it turns out, the "instrumental" aspect of these select gigs simply ditches the beats typically laid down by Mix Master Mike as the Beasties take up instruments for the show's entirety. Though they still won't be mistaken for virtuosos, the early buzz indicates wood-shedding sessions for The Mix-Up have honed the guys' skills (yes, even Mike D's sometimes spotty live timekeeping) to a new level. Onstage, the Beastie Boys can focus on their better, new material while mixing in old favorites to maintain their rep as stellar live performers. But fans will have to wait until the group's next non-instrumental effort to find out if their heroes still have something relevant to say.