Beck, The Information (Interscope) Great art tends to emanate from the subconscious, but as Tom Cruise has made utterly clear, celebrity Scientologists like Beck aren’t supposed to believe in psychotherapy. Maybe that’s why Beck has tempered his weirdness on recent albums like Sea Change and Guero — expanding his audience while losing some magic. Fortunately, his forthcoming The Information sounds like a massive return to form. Purported to be an “acoustic hip-hop” album, it can be previewed online via a series of no-budget videos (static camera angles, cheap props and shoddy, pixelated FX that make community-access cable look like the latest Spider-Man sequel). The music sounds both fresh and reminiscent of Beck’s earlier work. “Strange Apparition” is ’70s freedom rock that slows to a syrupy power ballad recalling Jon Bon Jovi’s Blaze of Glory period. “Cell Phone’s Dead” features a stabbing electro bass line and distant dub echoes. Every song is filled to the brim with yabbering phantom voices, electronic filigrees and clattering junk. I attribute the high quality to Beck’s renewed willingness to delve into the sticky innards of his mind. Viz. the freewheeling puppet shows that were part of his recent festival appearances: They feature Beck and his band mates as sexually rapacious marionettes who masturbate, boink stuffed bears and indulge in fetishes like gigantism and shrimping (Google it). Beck obviously appreciates Scientology’s weird Catch-22: Its adherents can be batshit crazy; they just aren’t allowed to seek treatment. The Information hits stores October 3.
Tom Petty, modern rocker How did Tom Petty become an alt-rock touchstone? Sure, he’s long been embraced by classic artists from Dylan to Orbison, but on 2002’s The Last DJ, he seemed washed up, repeatedly lamenting the state of contemporary radio. With the release of Highway Companion, the Petty meme appears to have crossed over to the modern-rock crowd. First came accusations that the Red Hot Chili Peppers plagiarized their new single from one of his hits. (Never mind that Petty’s new single sounds a lot like ZZ Top’s 1973 “La Grange.”) Stereogum.com called him “awesome.” And more recently, the Strokes, Pearl Jam, Beck and Frank Black were announced as opening acts on his fall tour. Don’t get me wrong, I’m psyched that his hypnotic white-man groove is finally being embraced by the cooler-than-thou crowd. I just didn’t expect so many to listen to their hearts and align themselves with the rock equivalent of vanilla ice cream. Could they be steeling themselves for a period when the much-heralded new rock revival (the Hives, Franz Ferdinand, et al.) goes free-fallin’ into total oblivion? Tom Petty plays the Hollywood Bowl with the Strokes Sept. 26, and Coors Amphitheatre in Chula Vista with Beck Sept. 27.
Chris Thile, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground (Sugar Hill) Thile’s 1994 debut at age 13 caused folks to dub him the Mozart of mandolin. His trio, Nickel Creek, Southern California’s only multimillion-selling, avant-garde-leaning bluegrass band, just announced a hiatus beginning in late 2007. Talk about early warning! Thankfully, this will give him time to pursue his muse, as documented on Grow, his sixth solo album. Thile is a rare quantity, a virtuoso with the looks of a choirboy and the soul of a tender troubadour. He and his four young band mates bring remarkable articulation and energy to these instrumental and vocal recordings — six originals, eight traditionals and oddball covers (the Strokes, White Stripes). What’s more impressive is that these ornate arrangements for guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin and fiddle were recorded live with two microphones and no overdubs. But it’s the emoting that’s key. The music is both rollicking and melancholy, a feat “hip” indie troubadours like Will Oldham or Elliott Smith have rarely managed. Thile’s vocals even have a distinctive character that humanizes his skill: a slightly awkward falsetto that reminds me of what Captain Beefheart would sound like if he fronted the Backstreet Boys.
TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain (Interscope) I bet several of these dudes smoke enough dope to incapacitate a brontosaurus. If the title weren’t enough, c’mon, this album blatantly sounds like the product of dreamy, conflicted stoners. The vocals lull you into the comfort zone, while the music harshes your mellow. If I had to choose between Tunde Adebimpe’s emotionally inviting massed vocals and David Alan Sitek’s emotionally forbidding fuzz production, I’d vote Tunde, but there’s something to be said for the queasy combination. Hmmm, munchies. TVOTR play the Hollywood Bowl Sept. 24 with Massive Attack.
The Pack, “Vans” (Zomba) It’s been playing on urban radio for months, but the new hype is that MTV banned this hip-hop novelty because it was a virtual advertisement for the classic sneaker brand. Constant references to “coke-white” Nikes probably didn’t help. For the uninitiated, “Vans” is probably the most popular byproduct of Northern California’s “hyphy” movement — a brighter take on Southern crunk. Translation: Just wait, the ubiquitous ringtone you’ve been hearing will disappear in a month or two.
Sebadoh vs. Girl Talk Sebadoh III seemed like a map to the future of the underground when it was released in 1991. The lo-fi masterpiece, just reissued on Domino, was a schizo, bong-hit-afflicted combination of heart-on-sleeve acoustic confessionals and psychedelic hardcore nightmares. By contrast, the latest indie cause célèbre, Girl Talk, builds tracks out of prominent samples from Paula Abdul and Black Eyed Peas. How did we come to this? Well, back in the day, Sebadoh released an EP called Vs. Helmet, jokingly insinuating a rivalry with the “it” band of their era. Those no-bullshit hard rockers touched off a bidding war, while Sebadoh earned a fluke hit and a short tenure on Sire. Today, both linger in obscurity while Paula Abdul remains a pop icon. The genius of Girl Talk (a.k.a. Pittsburgh biomedical engineer Greg Gillis) is that he acknowledges the eerie ubiquity and persistence of trash. His Night Ripper (Illegal Art) may be the musical equivalent of a cocaine high — awesome while you’re under the influence, grating to those not taking part — but how can you argue with 180-plus pop hits in 42 minutes? It’s better than Cliffs Notes.