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Short Cuts :: Record Reviews

Rocker of a thousand faces tries them all, remains elusive.





With every album he's released and every genre/style he's adopted, Beck has also taken on a new persona: Bohemian Manchild Beck on Mellow Gold, Weirdo Bluesman Beck on One Foot in the Grave, White Hip-Hop Beck on Odelay, Circa-1982 Party Starter on Midnite Vultures, and "Sincere" Beck on Sea Change.

Guero is his least musically innovative record to date but perhaps the one least anchored to a persona. Instead of introducing a new sound to anchor the album, Beck simply borrows many of his older ones. "Earthquake Weather" and "Hell Yes" revive his early folk-rap and later new-wave sounds, respectively, and "Broken Drum" ebbs and fades like the ballads of Sea Change. Beck also indulges his obsession with Brazilian music on "Missing" and infuses the title track with Kinky-style beats. His one new fascination appears to be with T. Rex: "Black Tambourine" and "Go It Alone" work loose, minimal grooves whose midtempo pace recalls Electric Warrior.

While some of these songs are retreads of past successes, Guero does more than simply revisit the past. Beck sounds relaxed now that he knows he doesn't have to reinvent his wheel again. As the album progresses, he increasingly mixes up all of these diverse sonic elements so that they bump and grind against each other. "Hell Yes" adds a folksy harmonica solo to its early-'80s keyboard burble, and "Farewell Ride" places a stomping slide-blues riff against mechanical beats and a chain-gang chorus. Ultimately, Beck's not just revisiting his previous personas; he's fusing them, possibly to build some sort of MegaBeck.

Beneath this self-redefining tactic runs a current of gloomy futility at odds with the spirited music. "I push I pull," he sings on "Earthquake Weather," "the days go slow into a void we filled with death and noise." Such evocations of detachment and isolation suggest that Guero may be Beck's most personal album to date. Or maybe not. But it's definitely as elusive as anything he's ever done.

--Stephen Deusner

Grade: B+

Listening Log

I Am a Bird Now -- Antony and the Johnsons (Secretly Canadian): Following five years after a debut album no one heard, this indie-rock art project marries lachrymose, androgynous vocals to fragile chamber pop, giving way occasionally to blasts of soul horns. In theory, too histrionic for me. In practice, the melancholy yet almost devotional mood is oddly stirring. ("Hope There's Someone," "Fistful of Love")

Grade: B+

Greatest Hits -- Tracy Byrd (BMG): At his very best, this Nashville everyman cuts ace honky-tonk and tips his cowboy hat to C&W's past without ever losing sight of the truth about himself and his audience. ("We like to hunt and golf on our days off.") At his worst, the macho-man routine is a bore. The rest of the time, he's as hit-and-miss as most other midlevel male country stars, which means avoid the slow stuff. ("Drinkin' Bone," "I'm From the Country")

Grade: B-

No Wow -- The Kills (Rough Trade/RCA): Male/female guitar/drum (machine?) duo putting bluesy spin on indie/alt signifies White Stripes, but the gender role-reversal and starkness of the music/mood is much closer to early PJ Harvey -- with more sex appeal but less genius. ("The Good Ones," "I Hate the Way You Love," "At the Back of the Shell")

Grade: B+

Love's a Real Thing: The Funky Fuzzy Sounds of West Africa -- Various Artists (Luaka Bop): This collection of '70s "psychedelia" captures a generational transition, as West African bands once imitating Western counterculture pop began embracing the more localized sounds embodied in titans Fela and Franco. The culture-collision creates all the expected sparks: Hear James Brown-style grunts segueing into Mahlathini-style grunts as native polyrhythms bubble under American-style bebop; sawing acid-rock guitars giving way to swirling circular riffs. Hip-hop DJs looking for fresh raw material are strongly advised to check out the afro-funk epic "Better Change Your Mind." ("Keleya" -- Moussa Doumbia; "Guajira Ven" -- No. 1 de No. 1; "Better Change Your Mind" -- William Onyeabor) n --

Grade: A-

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