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Is Beck Still Where It's At?

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by Ryan 'RJO' Stewart, for outsideleft.com
originally published: March, 2005
For any Beck fan like myself, it's a big dis-appointment.

Beck
Guero
[Interscope Records]

In retrospect, maybe we shouldn't have even asked.

Nine years after he reached his creative apex with Odelay, with fans rapidly moving on to other rock saviors, memories of his greatness fading fast, and a host of others co-opting his style, Beck, with the Dust Brothers in tow, has caved to pressure from the world at large and released Guero (pronounced "WEAr-oh,") which is being touted as his return to the "junkyard funk" style that got everyone interested in the first place. Unfortunately, this new record, much like the rest of his non-Odelay ouvre, may have some moments, but ultimately won't have much of a shelf life. And for any Beck fan like myself, it's a big disappointment.

Beck never was able to recreate the magic of Odelay. He didn't even really try. What was great about Odelay was the way it threw all of Beck's musical loves into a stew and incorporated just about everything without watering any of it down. He'd do country for a while, then switch - mid-song, perhaps - to hip-hop. He also threw in some funk, metal, R&B, bluegrass, gospel and punk. The production of the Dust Brothers allowed him that exploration: they reined nothing in. They probably suggested half of the ideas. Their cavalier methods matched his willingness to try different things perfectly.

But the rest of Beck's catalog saw him trying to make his albums cohesive, ignoring the fact that Odelay was cohesive precisely because of its lack of cohesiveness. He tried a folk/world music combo on Mutations, and the world at large almost regarded it as a side project. When Midnite Vultures, a party record that mostly paid homage to Prince and was supposedly his "proper" follow-up, was released, everyone couldn't get enough of it...or about two weeks. And Sea Change, the album of country break-up ballads divided his audience strongly. But even the staunchest fan of the album barely spins it these days.

(As an aside, Midnite Vultures never got the proper recognition for serving as the blueprint for Andre 3000's The Love Below. It's a party record full of pleas for lovin' with some slick retro production. Sound familiar? I don't know if Andre even realized it, but "Hey Ya" could have easily been the duet with Beck he never recorded.)

As Beck allegedly moved back in that direction, it sounds like he probably discovered why he had strayed so far away from it to begin with. The truth is, Odelay was simply too good. There was no way he could possibly do something that earth shattering again. Perhaps that's why it feels like he didn't commit fully to this record. If anything, Guero suffers from the comparisons. The hype about a "return to form" is just that: hype. Really, the two don't sound anything alike.

Part of Odelay's greatness lies in its carefree joy: it sounds like the record Beck wanted to make. This sounds like a reach, and it definitely doesn't sound like he had as much fun as he did ten years ago. There are too many of the low-key serious-yet-not-entirely-serious white-boy raps Beck favored on Mellow Gold and Midnite Vultures ("Que Onda Guero," "Go It Alone," "Farewell Ride") and not enough straight-up rockers like "Minus" or "Devil's Haircut" - "e-Pro" contains the only noteworthy riff here. Perhaps Beck was, as some have speculated, making this record for someone else and therefore was holding back, perhaps he's simply lost his skills, or perhaps he was going for a sense of coherence. Either way, there's a disturbing sameness going through many of the album's tracks.

Some of these songs, like "Earthquake Weather" work by emphasizing the production values over Beck's vocals. Some, like "Que Onda Guero" and "Hell Yes" are catchy, but ultimately condescending, respectively built around a "hip-hop" "beat" with quote marks necessitated by the song's so-not-ironic-it's-ironic song and a sonic collage that keeps nudging you in the ribs by throwing an acoustic version of the Super Mario Bros. underground level music. Others, like "Black Tambourine," "Emergency Exit" and "Scarecrow" simply fail to make any impact at all.

Beck gives us one truly great song here. "Girl" sounds like a summer anthem in your favorite city, with acoustic guitars that burst out the speakers much like they did on a certain Outkast track; really this song could be that song's slightly more laid-back cousin. He also gives us a few pretty good ones, too - not surprisingly, the ones that recall Odelay the most successfully. "e-Pro" is a scorcher that's fun to blast and sounds good coming out of a trunk. "Rental Car" recalls the La-meets-Branson pop of "Sissyneck." And, as mentioned before, "Earthquake Weather" will definitely turn some necks into asparagus.

But ultimately, all this album serves to do is remind us that Beck was a guy who had the right sound for the right place at the right time. And that time is gone. The people may have been clamoring for a return to this style, but they should have known it wouldn't be as good if they knew it was coming. If Odelay was like someone throwing you a surprise party, Guero is like that same person telling you two weeks beforehand he'd be doing it again. Sure, you may find it fun for the first few minutes, but after a while, you'll be inventing excuses to get a drink in peace. We (sort of) got what we wanted from the guy. But really, we should have known better.

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