A seriously good effort from Beck Review: Nothing funny has happened to the alternative-rock wiseguy. He's always been a down-home guy at heart.

November 03, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

They say it's wrong to judge a book by its cover, but what about judging a pop star by his hits?

If all you know about Beck is what you hear on the radio, odds are you think of him as a wry, funky guy. Thanks to such hits as "Loser," "Where It's At" and "New Pollution," he seems the perfect post-modern pop star, grounding his smash-and-grab arrangements in grooves borrowed from hip-hop and funk.

Seen through those songs, he seems the weisenheimer alterna-rock cousin of the Beastie Boys. But if that's the sort of sound you expect from "Mutations" (DGC 25309, arriving in stores today), you're going to be sorely disappointed.

In place of the cut-and-paste approach used on his radio hits, the songs on "Mutations" were cut in real time, with live musicians and a folksy, down-home feel. No samples, no breakbeats, no funk, no funny stuff.

Instead, what we get are fractured blues and ragged hillbilly laments, an approach that leaves the album sounding more like Americana than alterna-rock. There are moments, in fact, when Beck sounds downright traditional -- and without a trace of irony, either.

Shocked? Don't be.

Anyone familiar with the whole of Beck's output will recognize "Mutations" as being more the norm than not.

Before "Loser," most of the music Beck made was derived from folk music and country blues, and his indie releases "One Foot in the Grave" and "Stereopathic Soul Manure" are in the same rootsy vein as "Mutations." The only real difference is that those albums were flavored by the intentional amateurism of underground rock, whereas this one is blessed with the sort of instrumental competence expected of major-label releases.

But even though "Mutations" doesn't indulge in the sort of blatant borrowing "Odelay" did, Beck still manages to get a little post-modern chicanery onto the album.

Not only is "Bottle of Blues" a sly burlesque of the way '60s rockers idealized the blues, but Beck builds the verse around a 12-string guitar lick that will leave many listeners thinking of Led Zeppelin's "Going to California."

Likewise, though the title and structure of "Nobody's Fault But My Own" seems to evoke Blind Willie Johnson's classic "Nobody's Fault But Mine," Beck's melody is so much in the style of Neil Young you half expect him to start singing about "the needle and the damage done."

It's almost as if Beck is playing the same game he was on "Odelay," only doing it without samplers and obvious pop-culture references. Sure, the musical vocabulary on this album is totally traditional, but the way he applies it is often more subversive than what he did on "Odelay."

Once you've heard the cheesy '60s vocal sample that sets up "New Pollution," you know the rest of the song is going to be delivered tongue-in-cheek. But it's not until you get to the end of the acid-guitar solo that caps the samba-style "Tropicalia" that you begin to suspect the song is more than just an exercise in Braziliana.

So, yeah, if you're going to judge Beck by his hits, you're probably not going to see the point of "Mutations." But then again, if all you know are the hits, odds are you don't really get Beck, anyway.

Beck

"Mutations" (DGC 25309)

Sun score: *** 1/2

Sundial: To hear excerpts from "Mutations," call 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6163. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2B.

Pub Date: 11/03/98

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