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Tuesday, January 18, 2005
Well, now that everybody's got it, we can start talking about it, right?

In general, there's nothing with the kind of hands-in-the-air energy of a "Devil's Haricut" or "Where It's At," but there's nothing as pastichey as much of the (very good, but definitely pastichey) Midnite Vultures album. There is something that tries to be "High 5," but it doesn't quite make it. At this point it just sounds like Beck, and while it's not Sea Change (which I really liked), it's certainly the same Beck we heard on that album, except produced by the Dust Brothers, if that makes any sense. Overall, he's found something that worked and really went for it: a laid-back, bass-and-drums driven sound that he sings or raps along to, and by and large the best songs on the album stick, wisely, to this formula. (Beck has always been good at identifying what he does well and then doing more of it, which is certainly to his credit.) At least half of the songs stick to this sound, which I'll call Dyanetics-hop, because I'm a dick.

It remains to be seen if this'll be the actual sequencing, of course (although if it's going to be released in February and this leaked January 7, there definitely existed a final version--I know my production timetables), but if he does end up starting with "Brazillica" (a maybe overly-obvious nod to "Tropicallia," which it's actually less energetic than), it's a good move, because it explicitly makes a slow slide out of his recent stuff, from the Mutations reference to the could-be-sampled-from-Sea-Change string section parts that come in, and are really nice. Overall, though, it's not particularly representative of the album, and I hope it doesn't, contrary to rumors, get released as a single.

Next is "Guero," and it's sort of an early prototype of the Dyanetics-hop sound, but a lesser version. Beck raps here and it's not fantastic. Much better is the next track, "Go It Alone," when he fully hits his stride, singing along with the bassline to surprisingly powerful effect. There's a very simple sampled, loping breakbeat and a bassline that's joined by a distorted guitar playing basically the same part in the chorus, but with a less syncopated rhythm. It's a very simple song, but all the parts are incredibly strong. This was when I really started liking the album; while initially the simplicity of the beat annoyed me, it does a hell of a lot with what it's got in an almost Prince-esque way, which we'll get to later, unless we don't. The song ends with a "Where It's At"-esque electric keyboard part. If you were a quippy rock critic you could call "Go It Alone" the breakdowns from "Where It's At" strung together to make a full song, but that would be stupid.

Then "Chain Reaction," the one that sounds like "High 5," and it's just OK, although it would be hard not to get a little bubble of happiness from the return of the distorto Beck voice. Then "Nazarene," which annoys me because I know exactly what plug-in the Dust Brothers are using on the beat. ("Buffer Interrupt," which is also prominent on a song MFR posted the other day, Mylo's remix of The Egg's "Wall." I was going to do a whole post on this fact, but meh.) It's too damn low-key, but maybe I'll warm to it. There is a very nice bridge, but let's move on, because three of the next four songs are absolutely fantastic.

"Black Tambourine" comes in full-on with the Dyanetics-hop sound, extremely hottt in its capacity to make your butt move back-and-forth of its own accord. You could make an argument that Beck is sing-rapping/speaking here, but let's be honest: this is what we call the vocals of people who we like but who just can't sing, like Mark E. Smith or, um, me. Beck, on the other hand, can fucking sing if he wants to, and the strong tonality here actually works very well: again, this is a track that is similar to but has distinct differences from the Odelay! sound, and it benefits from it.

"Earthquake Weather (maybe)" is noisier than most of the D-hop songs, but it largely works, and by "largely works," I mean that the verse is so-so but the chorus makes me want to run up to passerby and hug them. It's just absolutely gorgeous, a wonderful melody married to a great beat and accompanied by a processed guitar line that sounds like an organ at first but then turns into a nice little hyperchorused solo worthy of, dare I say it, Ween. But in a good way. And as the track goes on, you come to appreciate the verse for the way its more downcast mode contrasts with the major-key, unbeat chorus. Also nice and worth highlighting would be the way his voice glides up into a falsetto in the chorus. I would lobby hard for this to be a single, although a remix to pep up the breakdown might be nice.

"E-Pro," like "Chain Reaction," is something of a misstep in that it tries a bit too hard to be like Odelay, being noisier than where Beck's head is actually at these days, I think. But then it's all forgiven with "Summergirl," which, again, could totally be a single. Now, it's hard to tell how much of my affection for this song stems from the fact that for the first 30 seconds it sounds exactly like the kind of music I've been making in my spare time these days, all 8-bit and square wavey, but then it just seamlessly transitions into this great little sunny acoustic pop song, and then goes into a bridge that's in yet another style. The verse plays off Beck's old affection for low country-blues songs with blurred acoustic guitar parts, except works it into something not entirely unlike, ironically, "You Get What You Give." Then there's a chorus with gorgeous harmonies, and a nice little slide-blues breakdown, and oh, it's great. He repeats the chorus a bit too much, but hey, that just means it'd make a good radio single, and good for that.

Then "Scarecrow," which is noisy and bluesy and has the loping-jaguar bassline from "Billy Jean," more or less. The KLF were right! Oh, and it has a little bit to do with John Mellencamp, but not as much as I'd like it to. I think I need a bit of time to process this, especially since it's 7 minutes but the groove doesn't really seem to change much within that timespan, so let's move on.

Track 11 and 12, both untitled, are good counterpoints to "Scarecrow." 11 uses a similar guitar sound to "Devil's Haircut" but not as good a chorus, but is poppy and nice, and the chorus is very good anyway. 12 is built around a very nice octave-heavy guitar riff, but doesn't really go anywhere terribly interesting. Again, I might get more into these later in my relationship with the album.

The final track, "Hell Yeah," is, again, really fantastic, despite featuring rapping, because, I think, it's hard to think of anyone besides Beck rhyming over the beat, plus there's a female backup singer! Sampled or otherwise, it adds a really lovely little thing to the track, which otherwise is sort of like Timbaland in his Bubba mode with looser, liver beats, sort of herky-jerky but using loose acoustic guitar and harmonica samples. Beck is also genuinely and outwardly funny here, which helps a lot, and maybe points toward something to come. This track fits in with the rest of the album but is also not like any other track on it, and it's a great closer in a Beatles or Blur kind of album-sequencing way.

Overall, as I've been alluding to, I think the album is best when it goes somewhere different from where Beck's gone before, which is, in fact, one of the reasons so many people like him. It's not really a party album--only three or four of the tracks really make me want to get up and dance--but it is a play-in-your-car-with-the-windows-down album, and that's a lovely little thing, too. There is context here: Sea Change was both his quietest and slickest album yet, and on tour, he was extremely reluctant to do his more partyish songs. And while Wayne Coyne did successfully needle him into doing "Where It's At" and "Loser," and while it was good and the crowd went for it, just because he can perform those songs doesn't necessarily mean he can write those songs anymore, or that he should. That "Old Grandpa Beck" voice is the one he's got now, and he has to write material to go with it, which the best songs on the new album undoubtably are. It is more low-key, but it has to be, I think, to sound good: his voice would not sound right hitting that top note on the run up in the chorus of "Loser," say, although he can get away with it live because everyone knows the damn song already. Not everything on this album works, but when it does, it absolutely kills. "Summergirl" and "Go It Alone" are as good songs, in their own particular way, as any of the highlights on Beck's other albums. If there's a fault here, it's merely that the album is uneven; if you can't find a good 6 songs to really love here because "it's not good like his old stuff," man, I dunno, just take a look at your expectations, you know?

UPDATE: Aha: "Speaking of, as some of you may have seen, the new Beck album, tentatively due out March 28th, has unceremoniously been leaked onto the masses. This is NOT the final album. It is an early unmixed, unmastered version that is not the final sequence, so please be aware this is not what Beck intended to happen or bestow onto his fans." (Thanks for the pointer Jesse, not to mention the damn album itself.)

Well, this is actually kinda cool--same deal as with Hail To The Thief, and I very much enjoyed being able to compare the early and finished versions.