On March 6, well before the release of Guero (Geffen) this past Tuesday, Beck received the royal treatment from the New York Times ó a full-length, in-depth profile spread in the Sunday magazine. Itís an honor reserved not for the most popular, commercially successful performers in the music business but for critically acclaimed artists who over the course of a body of work have become culturally significant. Several months before the release of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury), the 1998 album that established Lucinda Williams as one of the chosen few, the Sunday magazine made her the subject of a similar story. Itís a rite of passage for a certain kind of artist, and if there exists a process of canonization in the commercial world of pop music, then a Sunday Times magazine feature is at least as important as, say, winning a Grammy.
Beck won a pair of Grammys for his 1996 masterís thesis on the white boy as Dylanesque rapper, Odelay (Geffen). It had as much an impact on his CD sales as the Times story will. Thatís not to suggest that he doesnít move units: even when he eschewed his two turntables and microphone for the sea change of 2002ís Sea Change (Geffen), the second album heíd recorded with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich (but the first with a backing band playing largely organic arrangements of sensitive singer-songwriter material), hundreds of thousands of copies were snapped up by eager fans. And the press lauded his new-found love of understated melodies and outright vulnerability. But compared with mainstream multi-platinum rappers like 50 Cent, Beck is little more than a day trader surrounded by giant corporate investment firms. The sales of one album by Eminem, Beckís most obvious white-rap analog, is at least one order of magnitude higher than the numbers generated by Beckís five proper major-label studio releases. Yet whereas Eminemís New York Times status is uncertain at best, Beck has been accepted as an artist.
The problem with artists as opposed to, say, pop stars is that it can be difficult to establish a basis for criticism. A pop song, whether it comes from the rap or the rock side of our cultural tracks, is either catchy, clever, and/or meaningful enough to attract our attention or itís not. Case closed. In the postmodern world, individual works of art, though ripe for interpretation, are often considered beyond criticism. Instead, we look to the artistís body of work. Since Beck has had a remarkable track record, itís now taken for granted that Guero ó which brings the Dust Brothers, the production team responsible for the loopy, digitized hip-hop sensibility of Mellow Gold and Odelay, back on board ó will be another artistic triumph.
The disc gets off to a running start with the heavy beats, distorted guitar hook, and Beaten poetry of "E-Pro," which even boasts a "na-na-na" refrain that recalls Beckís first big single, "Loser." Itís also full of the cleverly tweaked sound effects characteristic of the best Dust Brothers productions, from the simple hip-hop scratches, the almost atonal honking organ hook, and the faux barrio street sounds that color "Qué Onda Guero" to the "Paint It Black" splash of retro sitar that opens "Earthquake Weather" only to give way to a processed futuristic guitar lead on the chorus. And Beck hasnít lost his flair for Dylanesque raps ó at the start of "Qué Onda Guero," he twists his lazy tongue around this scene setter, "Here comes the vegetable man in the vegetable van thatís honking like a mariachi band. . . . "
But Guero doesnít find its feet until the third track, "Girl," a sunny little pop tune built around a base of straightforward acoustic guitar strumming and a catchy repeated chorus bolstered by sweet vocal harmonies. The Dust Brothers add a few of their digital tricks to the mix ó an electropop intro and a slide-guitar refrain. But like much of the rest of Guero, "Girl" owes at least as much to the SoCal singer-songwriter strums of Sea Change as it does to the cut-and-paste grooves of Odelay. It may be an admirable attempt to fuse two sides of a musical personality, but too often Beckís laid-back delivery leaves him wandering in the mix and looking for a hook to hang his fragmented imagery on. The result sounds less like the statement of purpose that Odelay and Sea Change were and more like a transitional album à la Mutations.
No worries. Thereís more than enough serviceable material here to keep fans happy. And perhaps someday Guero will be judged a work of genius. Thatís just the nature of art.
Issue Date: April 1 - 7, 2005
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