Again, Beck bucks the trends

New on CD

Music: In Concert, CDs

April 07, 2005|By Eric R. Danton | Eric R. Danton,HARTFORD COURANT

He broke the pattern.

Or, rather, the alleged pattern.

For years, the conventional wisdom on Beck has been that he alternates between releasing goofball hipster rave-ups and more somber, serious affairs.

It's true that his last album, 2002's Sea Change, fell into the latter category as he exorcised the torment of a bad breakup on 12 dour shoe-gazer folk tunes. And it's true that the record before that, 1999's Midnite Vultures, was an eclectic exercise in writing sexy songs the way Prince might if he were a wispy white kid from Los Angeles.

As in most cases, though, the conventional wisdom here is a little too simplistic.

What best defines Beck's career is his willingness to experiment in his music and to take chances by doing things other people aren't. He's not afraid to be an outsider, and it's evident in a literal and figurative sense on Guero, his latest.

The title is Spanish slang meaning "white boy," and it's a word Beck heard while taping street sounds for the album in the L.A. neighborhood where he grew up.

"One of the things on the recording was, sure enough, this guy yelling from across the park, `Eh, guero!! Que honda?'" Beck says in the Winter `05 issue of Filter magazine.

The snippet made it into "Que Onda Guero," a song that is vintage Beck. He describes a colorful street scene atop jovial horns, ambient chatter (one voice mentions "a mullet and a Popsicle"), electronic manipulation and a backbeat cooked up by the Dust Brothers. (The duo co-produced the record with Beck.) It's the kind of tune that would have fit perfectly on Odelay, the singer's landmark 1996 album.

Other songs, though, have more in common with material on Beck's other records. That's part of what makes Guero so good: It's a thrift-store patchwork of the styles and sounds that have caught his interest over the years.

He dabbles in driving hard rock on "Rental Car" and in the bombastic guitar of the opening song, "E-Pro," and reprises the maudlin atmospherics of "Sea Change" with the moody "Broken Drum."

He revisits neo-soul with the bob-and-weave bass line of "Hell Yes" and packs in a bunch of unclassifiable stuff on the rest of the 13 tunes. Dusty acoustic slide guitar helps create a weird urban-desert-blues vibe on "Farewell Ride" -- think Pale Rider, if it had been filmed in the seedier parts of L.A.'s Echo Park neighborhood.

That sort of thing is more or less Beck's trademark: offering new context to familiar things, and thereby refreshing them. He's done it since Mellow Gold, his 1994 debut. It's that overarching let's-try-it-this-way aesthetic that makes his work more than just a collection of non-sequitur lyrics and nutty little musical bits and samples. In fact, it has made Beck one of the most consistently interesting and unpredictable artists making music in any genre. Somehow, he almost always manages to keep his own interests accessible to his fans.

Guero not only breaks whatever pattern people thought Beck was following, but it also seems to demonstrate that he's not even paying attention to such things.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Beck

Guero (Interscope) ***1/2

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