Your Popsicles Melting
Photo by Autumn De WildeGet scared, be happy. Freeze your toes off, sweat a lot. Take risks, bask in your regrets. Black isnt beautiful, it just is. Yanni just is. The devil was once an angel, and his other name is Conscience. Life is pain and gain, truth lies somewhere amid the two. But dont you know life is just a teetering mound of memories, terrible lies we tell ourselves, sheer scrap and crap in tall piles. And all the while, time swaggers on, till we die. Plus and minus, endings and beginnings: Aint a dimes worth of difference between such extremes, concludes Beck on his new Guero. These and other observations spew forth in his spring of 2005 but somethings a little off. In the past, homeboy has dependably seesawed between broody sincerity records (good ones like his previous Sea Change, and great ones like Mutations) and doofier aw screw it albums. Guero alters the plan, presenting a hybrid in tone that suggests, despite the outrageous cheese of its more flippant party tunes, a kind of post-adolescent-gloom maturity thats working hard to reconcile undeniable big ups with eternal murky downs. Becks gone back to his old producer mates the Dust Brothers to grease up Guero, a shrewd move that gives much of the album a dingy, initially unconcerned aura quite unlike the Nigel Godrichproduced Sea Change (lest we fear hes gone for good down the old misery hole). Gueros just do it feel reflects, no doubt, Becks recent big life changes, apparently changes for the better, such as his marriage last year and subsequent fatherhood. Supposedly the vibe he was after was a kind of return-to-roots deal, that funny, sensitive-slob thing that made the Dust Bros.produced Odelay such a bongload of beauty. So Beck brings it all home again? Not quite. Bangin tunes like the opening E-Pro mash Eagles of Death Metal sleaze-thrash with Davie Allan & the Arrows biker rumble as Becks talkin trash to the garbage around you. Meanwhile the na-na, na-na-na-na-na hooks bull-pop DNA forces you (resentfully, maybe) to croon along as ax fuzz and rubbish bins club ya head like a caveman. The whole stinking mess, though, is finely trimmed with Lilliputian electronic swirls, then words like too much left to taste thats bitter confirm it: This isnt just another doesnt matter what hes saying tune, and Guero probably wont be another not going to think too much record. The risquély? un-PC rap Qué Onda Guero (Wuddup, White Boy? roughly) brings on horn samples, scratches and drum slops so blunted you wanna reach down and pull their britches up yo, little brother, its one of Becks just kickin it local tunes. I thought this kind of cultural tourism of his was irritating to the max at first (even if he did hang around MacArthur Park a lot as a kid), and part of me still does (background snippet: Im going to LACC, Im taking a ceramics class). But now I like the quadruple-twisted irony of its cilantro-ambient lope, and especially the twinkling synth ornaments a-dangling like Spanish tassle round the too-small windshields of my mind. The Dust Bros. production touches here and pretty much throughout the disc are advanced models of subtle obscurity and great finesse. Becks playing a lot of tricks on Guero, lyrically and musically. Girl s poppy acoustic-guitar drive and inexorable chorus of what sounds like Hey! My summer girl is, again, a finely boiled-down 70s-80s goulash that you cant help warbling cause its already muscle memory. This songs slightly grasping: The hodgepodge of bottleneck slide guitar and Laurel Canyon pals vocal chorus is a bit contrived and stiff, but its short and semisweet and . . . then you happen to catch, possibly, what hes singing about. I do believe that his God-guided vagabond protagonist is gonna keeel? that summer girl, bury her, make her wrong life right. Because this awful stuff is accompanied without a hint of anything but audible joy, the effect is gnarly; Becks creepy like a good actor can be likably creepy, and then you feel like a creep for liking him. You might call it art. Such dark-side redemption is whats driving Beck these days. You find that heaven-is-in-your-mind theme slipping through most of these songs, whose semi-varied settings look back on and recombine Becks musical curiosities of the last decade or so. On the Brazilian-Bollywood mongrel Missing, Beck the vocal chameleon tries out that distressing clenched-jaw emo pseudo-soul (I hope rain doesnt come/wash me down the gutter) weve all come to know and quiver to (totally unnecessary, too, as his own unadorned voice is really pleasing). Earthquake Weather lifts José Felicianos Light My Fire guitar while mix-n-matching electro/hip-hop bass, tight-butt 70s studio drums, a dash of Whos That Lady guitar whine, rooster-strut clavinet break, and a vague mixage of sampled whosis? for a hologramatic effect. Out of that muck he then drags this odd, Franciscan monkstyle vocal chorus: I push, I pull/the days go slow/into a void/we filled with death, a theme that click-bangs in the context of the mix. All these sitars, scratches and humming scenes are the little things in life, arent they, finding their analogue in a warmly indifferent world that wisps memory, time and place. Truth to tell, with Guero you might end up finding out not much more than you already knew about Beck, your life or the one he so patiently maps out. But its the sort of casually measured way hes doing it that makes it reverberate. See how metaphor comes correct when the old-school Hell Yes uses his role as DJ to lecture about the importance of doing your own thing, and cajoles rappers and you to consider the vital difference between superficiality and commonality. (Hell yes, he vocoders, Im calling you out, Im switching my plates.) And all the while, time goes by, and you face life alone . . . but its your life. Suddenly, Rental Car pulls up and yanks you inside. The best thing on the album by a country mile, its the kind of song thatd make a right-on single butd probably be considered too complicated for dumbo Americans. Lyrically its a mere screw everything, lets hit the road tune, but the sound what a glorious goosing of rock history, such freshly peculiar liquefactions: Nuggets? wobbly fuzz bass, a bit of Under My Thumb mallets/handclaps and a chorus of yeah yeah yeahs over sampled snatches of the heck is it? Paul Mauriats Love Is Blue? (You hear what you want to hear, I guess.) Startling, exhilarating. It deserves to be a smash hit. Guero, in its respect for death, is a Mexican record. No, its a Zen record, cause Beck rejects the dramaturgy of a lifes arc into death, choosing instead to immerse in our common random, reckless spectacle as we drift toward the big sleep, or Taco Bell. He doesnt want to come out and say, Its the wee things that count, so he sneaks it in like this instead. And theres something very kind about that. Guero, in fact, is a comforting record, not for the way these songs flash us back to the sound of a simpler, happier time, but for the way this seasoned Becks words and music exemplify how keeping an eye on ourselves means listening to each other, too. A few years ago I got an invite to Becks 30th birthday party, and, ignoramus that I am, I figured that you get invited to someones birthday party, you bring em a present, right? So I made him a CD of some music I thought he might like. (Pretty goony, eh?) I found myself embarrassed as hell to hand this big star this dumb birthday present, I mean I felt so stupid. But I cant forget how quietly gracious he was about it, like he really appreciated the gesture. And Ill be blowed if that particular superstar didnt write me a thank-you note. I still have it, carefully filed away here at home. He didnt have to do that, but he did, is all Im saying. Anyway, one things for sure, and that is, when death comes knocking, you may end up proper buried or washed up in a shallow grave. Beck says hey to all that and when Beck says hey, it means nothing, it means everything. Beck | Guero (Interscope)
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