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The Boston Phoenix Blasting the Past

Beck gets really old school

By Gary Susman

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  You're Beck. Heir to a legacy of conceptual art, you've made your name as the king of the postmodern popsters. You've composed a generational anthem ("Loser") on a four-track deck in your garage, won a Grammy for your hit album Odelay (1996), wowed 'em on tour, and driven critics deep into their thesauruses to find new terms with which to praise your dadaist bricolage of folk and feedback, of sample-happy hip-hop and surrealist wordplay. (See?) And though you're famous enough to get past the doorkeeper at Moomba or Veruka, you still look young enough to get carded at the bar.

So what do you do for a follow-up act, something really experimental and wacky and on the edge?

How's this for an idea: you record a disc of . . . songs. You know, verse-chorus-verse. With a band. Playing instruments. No rapping, no samples. And all the songs will be so complementary in ambiance and subject matter that the whole package will resemble -- what did they used to call it? -- a concept album! Radical, no?

Hence a new album with the perfect Beck title, Mutations (Geffen, in stores Tuesday), featuring a dozen songs so retro, they're almost hip. Beck sings and plays guitar, accompanied by his touring band, whose line-up includes keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, and drummer Joey Waronker. The musicians have largely set aside digital and electronic instruments for acoustic ones, including harmonica, upright bass, and the occasional brass and strings. The songs have been recorded almost live, with few retakes and minimal mixing. It's Beck unplugged, at least in the MTV sense of the word -- standing in front of a bank of microphones and playing lots of instruments that aren't the ones you usually use in the studio.

On Mutations, Beck wants to party as if it were 1968. Virtually everything about the record sounds like 30 years ago, beginning with the production by Beck and Nigel Godrich. The album was recorded in a brisk 16 days, with all the musicians playing in one room so that the instruments bleed together. Besides the aforementioned instruments, Beck uses some sonic blasts from the past that resonate with the art-pop experimentalism of the day: not just such then-novelties as sitars, mellotrons, and wah-wah pedals (though they're here), but also harpsichords, glockenspiels, organs, and pedal steel guitars. The resulting textures, along with the lazy, Notting Hill accent that the California-raised Beck curiously affects here, make Mutations sound like some buried artifact of the Donovan era, lost for three decades like Syd Barrett, now defrosted like Austin Powers. Beck has described the album as "the headphone record . . . for those midafternoon reveries we all enjoy, when we're tumbling through the high green grasses or meadows." In fact, it sounds like the Kinks, lazing on a sunny afternoon, putting us into that somnolent trance during side two of Something Else while we wait for "Waterloo Sunset" to lull us finally into oblivion.

Although Beck may have had a bucolic midafternoon in mind (high green grasses, eh?), the mood of the lyrics is more 3 a.m. than 3 p.m., the dreary, drunken desolation of the soul that is the turf of Mazzy Star, Cowboy Junkies, and the Velvet Underground. The singers of those bands, in their existential depression, sound respectively vulnerable, elegant, and edgy; Beck simply sounds tired and resigned. Love is a frequent topic, but he describes it alternately as "a poverty you couldn't sell," "a room of broken bottles/And tangled webs," "a plague in a mix-match parade/Where the castaways look so deranged." If the music is '60s LSD, the lyrics are '90s Prozac.

Not that Mutations is a drag to listen to. Beck puts some variety in the mix by shuffling genres, as is his wont, from psychedelia to folk to blues to (on "Tropicalia") bossa nova. For the first time, he reveals a gift for haunting melody ("Cold Brains," "Nobody's Fault But My Own," and the closing benediction of "Static"). And in case you worry that he's forgotten how to rock out, there's the bonus track, in which he remembers that 1968 was also the era of Blue Cheer and Iron Butterfly.

That cut's refrain, "Looking back at some dead world that looks so new," is an apt summation of Mutations. Beck is waltzing through a boneyard of old sounds and defeated hopes, but you have to marvel at his blithe ability to cultivate fresh daisies on the graves.

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