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Record Reviews: Beck, Abe Vigoda, Nico Muhly

Beck | Modern Guilt | Interscope

In a midcareer interview around the time of the release of Sea Change (if I recall correctly — I can’t find the interview online), Beck explained that he was striving to have the kind of career forged by Neil Young, one in which he is able to follow his muse wherever it leads him, in which each album is part of a larger whole. If that’s the case, consider Modern Guilt to be his Hawks and Doves or On the Beach: a decent work with a few choice cuts that’ll no doubt land on mixtapes and become Beck classics, but which doesn’t really rise to the level of, say, Tonight’s the Night, After the Goldrush, Odelay or Sea Change, each of which expanded its creator’s aesthetic. Produced by Danger Mouse, Modern Guilt sounds exactly as you would think such a collaboration would: catchy, beat-heavy ditties with memorable guitar lines, pretty harmonies and bouncy hand-clap backbeats. Like Beck’s most recent two releases, The Information and Guero, Modern Guilt features a majority of midtempo rockers and a few gentle ballads. And it’s these latter songs that are the best. Beck has always excelled at making sad, slow love songs — “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” “Nobody’s Fault But My Own,” “Broken Drum” — and on Modern Guilt, it’s “Walls” and “Volcano” that rise above. The rest are good, and many times better than what most of his peers are doing. And, honestly, a decade hence, when Beck’s on some weird-ass tip that no one would have predicted, I may return to Modern Guilt and find a perfect record, as I did when I revisited Neil Young’s Reactor and Trans albums, both of which were considered odd additions to his catalog at the time. But for now I’ll file this away and wait for it to age — and hope that Beck considers again collaborating with Nigel Godrich.

—Randall Roberts

Abe Vigoda | Skeletons | PPM

Are you embarrassed around your closest friends? Suffer from unsightly outcroppings of polo shirts and pastels? Every so often do you unintentionally leak enthusiasm for Vampire Weekend? It’s all right, Abe Vigoda is here to help. The tropical punk quartet is the next in line, after No Age, to fill its sails with whatever’s wafting out of downtown L.A.’s gutter-fabulous all-ages mecca the Smell, and the attention they’ll no doubt reap will be just as deserved. Skeleton, the band’s third album in four years, is a brimming Technicolor pool of splashy drums, buoyant percussive bits, distorted sound waves, lilting vocals and Abe’s signature flourish — clean, bright guitars that chime like the amplified thumb pianos of Congolese beat-masters Konono Nº 1. Songs like “Bear Face” and “The Garden” are breezy and thick, full of image-rich poetry and prone to sudden rhythm shifts. But there’s a tightness that pervades through all that pretty noise that makes Abe Vigoda the unintentional but wholly fortunate (and guiltless) improvement upon Vampire Weekend — one whose style is decidedly more American Apparel than United Colors of Benetton.

—Chris Martins

Nico Muhly | Mothertongue | Brassland

In classical music, recording is supposed to be nothing but a transparent transmission of this event. The focus is on the work rather than the process. Not so with Muhly, the latest New York wunderkind composer come to save classical from the bore it’s been. After his first album, Speaks Volumes, Muhly went whirlwind with pop avant-gardes from Björk to Antony, and scrapped the overhead live mike of the classical world for a smarter studio technique. The result is more like film music in production, even if classical in form and unclassifiable in texture. The title three-movement work “Mothertongue” floats by as a mix of Glass-shimmer strings with deep-space keyboard bass lines and disembodied chirps of text scripted straight from the soprano’s mental address book. Muhly’s love of the English macabre appears as Renaissance vocal music in odd, stately harmonies grounded by Wicker Man pastoral harpsichord and the occasionally offside sample for the episodic “Wonders.” It is on the final suite, “The Only Tune,” that Muhly reveals his greatness. A folk song about a girl drowning her sister gets retold in three voices by singer Helgi Hrafn Jónsson. Each setting twists the story further, with help from Jónsson’s excellent flexibility. The tune ends in a cool Sufjan-like moment of folk-pop reverie, a miniature wonder unhinged from genre expectation and comfortable in its realized ambitions.

—Daphne Carr

 James McMurtry | Just Us Kids | Lightning Rod

James McMurtry has always been somewhat of a stealth presence in the alt-country community, never commanding the kind of attention that, say, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams or Gillian Welch do, instead running with the pack of remarkable songwriters like John Prine, Townes Van Zandt and Joe Ely, each of whom has a preternatural affection for telling hard stories that ask hard questions, and tap into the American wellspring of country, rock and blues to find the answers. Though McMurtry doesn’t have the restraint of Van Zandt, on his eighth studio album, Just Us Kids, he’s as steady as ever: bass, guitar, drums, the occasional dirty harmonica, and a few left-field rhythmic flourishes that should be surprising, except that McMurtry has always appreciated the little touches. As well, he carries on the tradition forged by Woody Guthrie of leftist protest poets calling bullshit on the arrogance of power. He’s pissed off at the Bush administration, of course, as well as the Masters of War, the rich who zip away as their cigarette boats drown helpless fishermen, at Hollywood Hills–moving women who forget their roots. If it’s at times a little heavy-handed — I know quite a few Hollywood Hills residents who keep in touch with their friends back home — or it feels like he’s preaching to the choir, at least it’s never for lack of eloquence. (Program note: McMurtry plays the Troubadour on Tuesday, July 22.)

—Randall Roberts

Barn Owl | From Our Mouths a Perpetual Light | Not Not Fun

Ranging from pseudo-spiritual to truly unnerving, From Our Mouths a Perpetual Light is another gem of esoteric noise from a label, Not Not Fun of San Francisco, that knows how to manufacture an aura. Barn Owl’s specific brand of drone-noise is akin to placing your ear against the Dalai Lama’s stomach and catching the sound of his reincarnation juices flowing: an overpowering and weighty mass of movement. The record plays like a tour of the mythological: Sparse words reverberate as if from another room; walls of noise pass in waves; ethereal hums threaten to overpower whole tracks; tension reigns supreme. The first song, “Voice of the Other,” for instance, makes a clear break from the band’s earlier freak-folkish drone and discovers a level of intensity akin to that evil brainwashing trance music in Ransom that the kidnappers use on Mel Gibson’s son. All is not gloom and doom, however. A bit of gospel makes its way into the minutia of the recurring hum, and the effect is so subtle that the transition is barely noticeable; Barn Owl blends these cultural non sequiturs in a mixture that falls somewhere between seance and Southern pride. What’s best, though, is how Barn Owl can bring it down and find its way back to the pleasantries of listenable noise. “Teonanacatl,” for example, is a reassuring turn, when most drone music these days is polarized between sleep- or tumor-inducing.

—Casey Henry