In the hands of Beck and Barlow, rock continues to scavenge dance-music styles
By Noel Murray
DECEMBER 13, 1999: Earlier this year, Rhino Records released Loud, Fast & Out of Control: The Wild Sounds Of '50s Rock, a four-CD anthology that the compilers claimed was an attempt to reaffirm the danger of early rock 'n' roll, which has become so diluted by the nostalgia industry. In some ways, the set is a further dilution--another way to squeeze new money out of old chestnuts--but it's hard to argue with its overall success. By stacking overplayed sides from the likes of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly on top of gassed-up obscurities by Red Prysock and Ronnie Dee, Loud, Fast & Out of Control displays an invigorating spirit of discovery.
Two revelations stand out. The first is an overdue rethink of the racial origins of rock. Listening to the melange of black, white, and Hispanic artists renders irrelevant the old debate over whether rock 'n' roll is black music or white music. Frankly, the very discussion is insultingly segregationist--musicians of varying ancestry studied each other, played together, and mutually developed the sound. Even more intriguing is the disparity between the acts that remain part of mainstream culture decades later and those that have been all but forgotten--which is the second revelation of the Loud, Fast box. Listening to a familiar raver like "Rave On" side by side with a lost classic like "Action Packed" leads one to question what made the bigger hit special.
Both these issues, it could be argued, have dogged rock 'n' roll ever since those early days, and they still pop up today. A case in point is Beck, whose critical and commercial success raises the same issues about race and popularity that haunted rock 40-plus years ago: Is his sound a rip-off? Does he deserve the volumes of praise he gets?
Beck Hansen has been something of a quandary since he emerged from the boho clubs of L.A. in the mid-'90s. His blend of traditionalist folk/blues and goofy hip-hop/electro-funk earned huzzahs from critics impressed with his stylistic breadth and laid-back psychedelia, and it earned raspberries from critics (like myself, admittedly) who disliked the aloof smirk behind the dilletantish eclecticism and lyrical nonchalance.
It's hard to deny, though, that Beck's gotten better as he's gotten older. Although 1996's breakthrough album Odelay still suffered from nonsense lyrics and a goofy attitude that left some listeners wondering if Beck had anything of himself invested in his snappy music, the music was at least snappy. Even snappier is Beck's new album Midnite Vultures, tagged as the "official" follow-up to Odelay. (Last year's synth-blues album Mutations was intentionally underhyped by the Beck camp, so that no wolfish music writers could carve the artist up if his admittedly experimental album stiffed--which it didn't.) The new record is more overt in its appropriation of '70s funk and soul, spiced with horns and falsetto come-ons.
Some of the grinding balladeering is off-putting, especially any song with an "&" in the title ("Peaches & Cream," "Milk & Honey," "Nicotine & Gravy"). Unlike the early rock 'n' rollers, whose hybrids of country and blues were produced almost by happy accident, Beck is well aware of the sounds he's borrowing, and he's aware of how silly it is for a skinny, thrift-store white boy to be wearing these particular clothes. So perhaps to protect himself, Beck sings silly words in a silly voice that's almost a parody of the musicians to whom he's supposed to be paying homage. Though his singing never descends to the level of insult (or minstrelsy), the remarkably dense instrumentation and carefully assembled mixes are almost spoiled by the cartoonish persona out front.
There are wonderful exceptions--in fact, Midnite Vultures consists mostly of them. The on-the-one shuffle "Sexx Laws," with its banjo and trombone jam; the pumping, vocoder-aided "Mixed Bizness"; the synthetic drone of "Get Real Paid"; and especially the constantly surprising, mellowed-out tableau of "Hollywood Freaks"--all are refreshingly confident party music. At their best, the songs sound like they're ready-made to fit onto David Bowie's Stationtostation, Talking Heads' Remain in Light, or Prince's 1999--not coincidentally, three albums on which multi-talented creators let their love for dance music overwhelm their legendary sense of control, resulting in sprawling, stream-of-consciousness, visionary disco. This is a good path for Beck to follow, one less self-conscious about influences and appearance.
The two best songs on Midnite Vultures are ballads, one goofy, one sincere. The album closer, "Debra," is a hilarious pick-up song, directed at a JC Penney employee and her sister ("I think her name is Debra"). The joke works because the song tells a complete story, and Beck plays it to the hilt, screeching with real (not ironic) passion. Even better is the more serious "Beautiful Way," a lost-love song that displays Beck's gift for plain-folk melodies, which he usually saves for dreary traditionalist recordings. "Beautiful Way" couches its slide guitar and harmonica in a thoughtful arrangement, and it's direct and lovely enough to be a Folk Implosion song.
The comparison is apt, since The Folk Implosion have been tilling much of the same home-studio soil as Beck for the same time period, with less attention and less hassle. The Folk Implosion also have a new album, One Part Lullaby, which is the band's most fully realized effort after years of stubborn allegiance to unfinished homemade songs (one of which, "Natural One," actually became a surprise hit).
Apparently tired of "keeping it real," Lou Barlow--who seems to have saved his best songs for Folk Implosion rather than sharing them with his other band, Sebadoh--and facilitator John Davis have focused their attention on 13 delicate, elegantly constructed dance ballads. Glockenspiels, melodicas, and beat boxes give the music the quality of a wind-up toy rattling through the playroom. But the crunch of electric guitar and Barlow's melancholy baritone (harmonizing with Davis) indicate that playtime ends with dusk's approaching shadows. The whole album has a last-child-picked-up-from-preschool feel.
Too many songs on One Part Lullaby have the same slowly unwinding tempo, which has a slight deadening effect, but a few more energized numbers break the mood and reinforce the album's theme. The sing-along title track pulses like a busy signal while instruments enter the mix one by one--escalating the volume to accentuate the lyrics, about the crush of daily routine. The clockwork pop of "Mechanical Man" has at least half a dozen sounds to catch the ear, which fit its lyrics, about a guy trying desperately to say exactly the right thing to the girl he desires.
"Free to Go" is the record's real prize; over a bed of guitar buzz and rhythmic clank, Barlow sings "Catching butterflies, line drives, watching TV/Had seven good years before I noticed they were looking at me." This begins a series of ruminations on childhood in a broken home (and its aftershocks in adulthood) in a rock-out arrangement that renders Barlow's forlorn observations both palatable and powerful. Although nowhere near as fun, One Part Lullaby is on the whole more cohesive than Beck's Midnite Vultures and definitely more emotionally resonant. At the least, Barlow and Davis are able to borrow from dance music without worrying that they'll look like dorks.
The real question, then, is why critics continue to froth over Beck's problematic output when so many of his contemporaries do thoroughly what Beck merely dabbles in. The Beastie Boys do the white-boy rap better, with infectious enthusiasm and an innate sense of groove. Pavement have a better handle on arch surrealism and classic rock cut-and-paste. Luscious Jackson assemble a funkier party mix (especially on their most recent album Electric Honey, which hasn't gotten half the press of Midnite Vultures). Cornelius combines more influences in his home studio laboratory, with a dreamier sense of melody. And we've already talked about The Folk Implosion.
But Beck does it all, in one easy-to-digest package--he's the Elvis of DIY. And it's difficult to ignore the seriousness of his intent, even when his intentionally wheezy vocals put that seriousness in question. For the moment, Beck remains a guilty pleasure, at least until he comes up with something more coherent to say, or until he deals with his conflicted attitude toward the music he loves. Someday soon, maybe he'll even conquer his caution and get a little loud, fast, and out of control.
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