1999 / Music

Beck Reinvents Self As Horny Soul Man

Leaps From ‘Loser’ To Leader Of A Sexual Celebration

Photo: "Sexx Laws" Music Video

Photo: “Sexx Laws” Music Video

Beck Hansen is rock music’s man of a thousand faces.

What makes Beck so original and refreshing as an artist is his musical curiosity and his desire to reinvent himself and his music. He is both acclaimed and reviled for being a “cut-and-paste” kingpin, merging and distorting musical styles like painters dilute paints. He once said in a radio interview in November 1998, “If I’m working in a traditional vein, it will never be pure.”

As this week’s release of his new album, “Midnite Vultures,” shows, he is again heading in some surprising new directions.

Undoubtedly, he is one of the most important artists to come out of alternative music’s breakthrough in the beginning of the 1990s, and by decade’s end, he is one of the few who is still making compelling music.

The worldwide success of the patchwork single “Loser” showed that he was an artist of eclectic taste. For some, however, the lack of a big followup single hinted that Beck was a one-hit wonder. In 1996, he answered his critics with “Odelay.” The album was a visionary work and was hailed accordingly. Mixing country-folk songs with old school hip-hop, a Delta blues slide guitar and Beatlesque melodies, the album drew on a number of musical sources and fused them. It created something entirely new and yet suspiciously familiar. The album eventually won two Grammys.

Most importantly, “Odelay” revealed that Beck was a gifted and complex songwriter, willing to leap genres in pursuit of his ideas.

His former drummer Joey Waronker, once remarked that he was amazed at how easily Hanson was able to take divergent influences and recombine them into something new.

“He has this incredible gift, where he can pull all these weird pieces together and make it work,” Waronker told Sonicnet Music News last fall. “I’ve never seen anyone else who can do it. He’s one of the least self-conscious musicians in the studio that I’ve ever seen.”

But for all his gifts, Beck has been burdened for most of his career with being hailed as the “next Dylan.” In fact, after the success of “Odelay,” numerous magazines insisted that his next album — a stripped-down country-tinged affair called “Mutations” — was his version of Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding.”

Admittedly, DGC Records’ insistence that “Mutations” “wasn’t the official followup” to “Odelay” didn’t help. Beck told interviewers that “Mutations” was just a temporary detour while he continued to record his next album.

A year later, a new Beck is upon us.

With “Midnite Vultures,” Beck is reincarnated as a horny soul man, ready to take the listener on a sexual celebration with a 1970s style mix of funk, pop, new wave, techno, disco, hip-hop and R&B.

The album was recorded for more than a year and featured Beck’s road band (who he also made “Mutations” with) and his frequent production collaborators the Dust Brothers. Despite the familiar company, the album is a left turn from his previous efforts.

For one, Beck sheds his trademark nasal drawl in favor of a soul-stripping, screechy falsetto. Rather than being grating, it is a reverent and sly Prince imitation.

Full of horn blasts, dreamy interludes, emotional crooning and bass-heavy workouts, the album is designed as slick party music. The album overall draws heavily on Beck’s black influences, including James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Kool & the Gang and Prince.

The record opens with the first single, “Sexx Laws.” The song is built around a Booker T & the MG’s melody, with Beck doing his best James Brown imitation. You can almost imagine him doing splits during the songs’ chorus, “I’m a full grown man but I’m not afraid to cry.”

The album features a trio of Prince-like funky slow jams: “Nicotine & Gravy,” “Peaches & Cream” and “Milk & Honey.” Though each song draws on different facets of the Artist’s style, the songs are all about seduction. With Beck’s falsetto strutting about with sexual innuendos, the stinging guitar licks and choruses of horns work to put the lucky lady or fella in the mood for love.

Despite the prevalence of funk on the record, there is plenty of diversity. “Beautiful Way” is a trance-like love song with a guitar-driven melody and pedal steel guitars soaring overhead. “Get Real Paid” is like a hip-hop track covered by Devo and underpinned by a P-Funk bassline. “Broken Train” features a fuzzed-out guitar sparring with a droning bass, while the whole thing is held together through a web of percussion coming from a xylophone.

One of the most startling aspects of the record is the emotional frankness of the lyrics. While his previous efforts often have been imbued with obscure yet visual wordplay, “Midnite Vultures'” words are direct, cheesy and hilarious. Whether they are real or not, it doesn’t matter.

Some lyrical highlights: “Satin sheets, tropical oils/Turn up the heat till the swimming pool boils,” or “You look good in that sweater/ And that aluminum crutch/ I’m gonna let you down easy/ I’ve got a delicate touch.”

The album’s centerpiece is the schizophrenic “Hollywood Freaks.” The song is actually four or five different songs that morph into each other and back again. In the beginning, Beck is flaunting his rapping skills to a Dr. Dre-style beat and then, the music shifts to a pulsing bass breakdown during the hook. The track eventually ends with a gospel-style sing-along.

The album closes (and climaxes) with “Debra.” With fluid Hendrix-ian guitar drifting in and a church organ teasing throughout, Beck’s falsetto gets its toughest workout in order to convince his love interest into a menage-a-trois with her own sister Debra. Some of the lyrics are too hysterical to exclude: “I met you at JC Penney/ Your name tag said Jenny/ I cool stepped to you with a fresh pack of gum/ And somehow I knew, you were looking for some.”

But for the all record’s sex-capades and reliving of the 1970s, there is much more to it than a history lesson. Its tone and the lyrics are both a celebration and gentle nudge to the syrupy nature of many love songs.

But don’t think about that now. Put on the album and kick back with the one you love or the one you want to love. And maybe, just maybe, let nature take its course.

For More Info:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 1999 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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