April 7, 2005

Beck: Guero

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Many musicians have established themselves under the banner of one genre — only a few have managed to master a vocabulary including, say, the simplicity of country music, the complexity of electronica and still remain pop bound for the top 40. Beck Hansen is one of these anomalies who can do everything. Whether it’s the angst-ridden Sea Change, the freewheeling wall of sound on Midnite Vultures or the folksy Mutations, a Beck album will assuredly be great. It’s definitely difficult to shove Beck into a genre, but one thing is for sure — his courageous lyrics and complicated compositions always hit the core of current American popular culture.

But don’t discount Beck just because he happens to be mainstream. The man creates all his own horn and string arrangements, plays the guitar and keyboard, sings and writes meaningful words all at the same time. With the help of top-notch producers, many of the songs on this album come together beautifully.

What we get on Guero seems to be a synthesis of the best pieces from previous releases. There’s rap reminiscent of Midnite Vulture’s “Hollywood Freaks” or Odelay’s “Where It’s At” on the eighth track “Hell Yes.” While Beck is no MF Doom, the songs are still musically compelling. Another attempt at rap, “Que Onda Guero” is layered with neighborhood voices arguing loudly and artificial mariachi horns, giving the effect of wandering through a lively barrio. The track is hilarious beyond a guero (white guy) trying to rap; it ends with somebody saying something about “going to get the new Yanni cassette.”

Guero also features pseudo-ballads like Vulture’s “Debra.” Even though you can’t tell whether he’s being sarcastic or not, much like the tone on “Debra,” “Girl” is still beautiful. While the song begins with electronic beeps, an elegant trio of bass, drums and acoustic guitar later accompanies lyrics like “Toy diamond ring stuck on her finger … Walking crooked down the beach … know I’m gonna steal her eye … Hey my summer girl.” While it’s probably another story about falling in love, Beck knows we hate the predictability of bad pop, so he keeps it upbeat and slightly dark: “She spits in the sand/ Where their bones are bleaching.”

Beck switches gears seamlessly from ballad to club chill-out to light funk and back again in Guero’s first half, which admittedly can sometimes produce a confused aftertaste. But that doesn’t mean the album still can’t be brilliant. The track “Earthquake Weather,” for example, features a talent only few musicians can achieve: the ability to write a dance-ready track using mostly a Wurlitzer piano and acoustic guitar. It helps to have a few turntable effects, a tight beat plus a few horns here and there, but at its core “Weather” is still the product of a one-man band.

On Guero, Beck reunited with the Dust Brothers, producers of the excellent Odelay. To no one’s surprise, many of Guero’s tracks sound like reworked versions of catchy beats such as “The New Pollution” or “Novacane.” The drum loops are quiet, however, and allow greater emphasis to be placed on instrumentals and especially vocals.

“Broken Drum” combines synthesizers, acoustic and electric guitars, a muted piano and an ethereal chorus of Beck harmonies, all which make the drums nearly an afterthought. On “Scarecrow” you’ll probably be too busy identifying with lyrics like “My soul’s just a silhouette/ On the ashes of a cigarette … All alone by a barren well/ Scarecrow’s only scaring himself.” It’s touching, longing and introspective, but don’t call it emo. Beck is far too musically virtuosic for that.

Generally, Guero isn’t nearly as in-your-face as Odelay, but it still has kick. A thumping bass line, clapping and a ridiculously simple guitar riff still manage to produce an adequate basis for Beck’s vocals on “Go It Alone.” Never satisfied, Beck continues to add more melodies with voices, pianos and guitars which surround the listener with music, but he then takes it all away and chooses to let the song end as it started. The sense of coolness evident in lyrics like, “Comb my hair back/ Strike a match on the bathroom wall … I gotta go it alone” is another dominant part of Guero. For Beck, this simplicity is very cool musically and poetically.

With only a few weak spots, his albums have all been remarkable productions, considering that each one is nothing like its predecessors. If Beck keeps on producing excellent albums every two or three years as his discography suggests, we have a lot to look forward to. I don’t think running out of room to explore will be a problem — he’ll just invent a new sound.

Archived article by Elliot Singer
Sun Staff Writer