2002 / Music

Review: Beck’s New Album Reveals His True Musical Calling

Marianne Faithfull, Aimee Mann Release New CDs

Read The Reviews: Beck | Marianne Faithfull | Aimee Mann

When we last checked in with our hero Beck in 1999, he was in a party mood. His last record, “Midnite Vultures,” was a playful imitation of such modern-day lover men as Prince or Maxwell.

But on his latest effort, “Sea Change,” the tenor is to the opposite extreme. He’s now a somber, introspective singer-songwriter. And for reasons beyond this record’s lyrical theme of romantic woe, “Sea Change” is his most revealing work.

This week, we’ll also look at new releases from Marianne Faithfull’s “Kissin’ Time,” which Beck lent a hand on, and from folk-rocker Aimee Mann. Are these worth a trip to the store? Read on.

Beck “Sea Change”

Where lies Beck’s musical soul?

Photo: DGC Records

Photo: DGC Records

Beck has firmly established an identity as a musical wanderer, zigzaging from one genre to another, and often melding what he’s found together. Overall, he’s succeed in creating a handful of brilliant albums while simultaneously pissing off many a dedicated scenester in the process.

But from the deranged folk music on his earliest indie albums to the hip-hop/pop/alt-rock gems on “Mellow Gold” and “Odelay” to the Vegas-ready soul man routine of “Midnite Vultures,” it has never been exactly clear what Beck’s true musical calling was. Is he a bard for a new generation? Hip-hop’s messiah from “bling-bling” excess? Or a hopeless, albeit gifted, dabbler? His latest and perhaps greatest album, “Sea Change,” answers the question once and for all.

In many ways, “Sea Change” — a glum, mostly acoustic album about heartache, desolation and disillusionment — is the record that Beck has been threatening to make for years. Back in 1998, Beck’s songwriting took a surprising turn, rebounding from the multi-platinum triumphs of “Mellow Gold” and “Odelay,” with “Mutations” — a fantastic album that his record label sheepishly dubbed an “unofficial followup.” On “Mutations,” Beck and his longtime road band put aside the samplers and turntables and tracked a batch of meditative folk-country tunes with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. The songs, which showed the influence of ’60s psychedelic-era burnouts like Skip Spence and Syd Barrett (with a little bit of Nick Drake as well), are by far the most straight forward that Beck had recorded to that point and are among his finest ever.

Although the public reaction was muted (many no doubt wondering what happened to his “two turntables and a microphone”), alt-country fans rejoiced, hoping that perhaps Beck was showing his true colors. But alas, his next record, 1999’s “Midnite Vultures,” was a mixed bag of cheesy R&B, cooing falsettos and sleazy funk that reveled in its vapid, sexualized plasticity. It seemed that “Mutations” had been just another phase.

But perhaps in response to the party atmosphere that permeated “Midnite Vultures,” “Sea Change” is yet another collection of quieter songs dominated by an acoustic guitar. Reaffirming that “Sea Change” is a sequel to “Mutations” is the presence of Godrich as producer and the use of his “Mutations”-era band (which includes guitarist Smokey Hormel and R.E.M.’s drummer Joey Waronker).

The result of this reunion is a record that rivals its predecessor.

Although clearly related, there are definite distinctions between the music on “Mutations” and “Sea Change.” While the “Mutations” songs are stripped to the basics but show a subtle diversity in the sounds used, the music on “Sea Change” is essentially monolithic. Each song is built around the template of Beck’s monotone singing and an acoustic guitar, enveloped by a sonic mist of reverb and then sweetened with emotive strings.

One of the highlights is “Lonesome Tears,” where the bombastic use of mournful strings mirrors the narrator’s epic battle — wrestling with his emotions about faltering love. Curiously, Beck places a simple ascending keyboard scale at the end of each chorus. The instrumental bit sounds incidental at first, but it’s soulful and highly effective in that it keeps the song firmly grounded.

Another song that benefits from a similar keyboard segment — this time played on a piano — is one of the album’s masterpieces, “Guess, I’m Doing Fine.” The song’s cadence is a crawl, which places Beck’s narrative about tragedy at center stage. Shadowed by an weepy steel guitar, Beck warbles about his crushed heart, “See the thing I’ve been missing/ Missing all this time.” Somebody better give this man a hug.

Equally noteworthy to the music is the plain-spokeness of Beck’s lyrics. Many of his older songs featured a flow of double-meaning phrases and disjointed images, which formed something of a hipster’s secret code. Although this approach could be refreshing at times, it typically came off as a distraction that blunted a song’s meaning. The songs on “Sea Change” are strongest when Beck’s connecting with his grimmer emotions, presenting them as a replay of memories from a mental scrapbook.

From song to song, he confronts his feelings differently. During “The Golden Age,” Beck tries to connect through a snapshot as he sings about driving through the desert to a city that’s far away from something he needs to get away from. On “Already Dead,” he’s unflinching. His voice quivers, invoking Hank Williams, when he sings “I feel like I’m watching something dying.” Beck finally faces his former love on “Lost Cause,” telling her he’s giving up on her and the emotional war she started. He’s leaving her to wave “(her) guns at somebody new.”

To consider “Sea Change” the culmination of Beck’s career thus far doesn’t detract from the greatness of his previous work. Instead, it clarifies where his strengths as a singer/songwriter/performer lie. “Sea Change” states affirmatively what is the musical sidestep and what is not.

Although Beck is already talking in press interviews about his next endeavor — either a punk rock album or a hip-hop-oriented project that he’s been working on with Dan “The Automator” Nakamura, the Dust Brothers, Timbaland and Cornelius — he mentioned during an appearance last week on L.A. public radio station KCRW that he’s already spoken with Godrich about hooking up yet again. He knows this is a place he’s not finished exploring.

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Marianne Faithfull “Kissin’ Time”

Although Marianne Faithfull has sung hit songs, recorded more than a dozen albums (many praised by critics), and co-wrote (anonymously) a Rolling Stones classic, her musical achievements will always be dwarfed by her past as Mick Jagger’s lady friend during the Rolling Stones’ debauched late ’60s and early ’70s heyday.

Faithfull apparently sees herself differently these days.

“I’m a muse,” she sings with her croak of a voice on “Sliding Through Life On Charm,” a naughty, autobiographical song about her sex-filled, drug-addled past that Faithfull co-wrote with the British band Pulp.

And it’s the role of facilitator that she honed with Mick and Keith that she’s again playing on her new album, “Kissin’ Time,” in which she’s teamed up with a mob of younger male songwriters like Beck, former Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan, Brit-popsters Blur, and Eurhythmics’ Dave Stewart.

The record’s pace and consistency suffers from using such a diverse list of collaborators, but these writers more often than not come through, providing Faithfull with material — mostly folk numbers and futuristic dance grooves — that really suit her and her unique vocals.

Faithfull’s voice, once light and filled with innocence when she sang big-band versions of pop songs in the ’60s, is now cigarette stained and weary sounding. Her voice sounds like she should be Bob Dylan’s long lost soul mate. Although it’s viola-like and distinct, there are obviously limitations. Using her voice on a song is like casting Mr. T for an acting job — although the character might have a different name, Mr. T always plays Mr. T. With this kind of baggage, changing up the music that supports that voice becomes crucial in keeping things from being formulaic.

On his three tracks with Faithfull, Beck covers the most ground musically. The delicate “Like Being Born” (featuring an eerie celeste solo by studio pro Jon Brion) is kin to the quieter, slow songs on Beck’s “Mutations” album. “Nobody’s Fault” is a cover of a track from “Mutations,” and the new languid arrangement and Faithfull’s intoning make this tale of regret seem very personal.

Another Beck track, “Sex With Strangers,” takes an entirely different tack. A slice of mechanized funk, this must be a holdover from Beck’s “Midnite Vultures.” But despite the robotic stutter of the rhythm, Faithfull’s vocal cadence is unmoved by it. It’s like she doesn’t realize there’s a party going on around her.

Her other collaborations are more uneven. While “The Pleasure Song,” co-written by Etienne Daho and Les Valentins, is alluring and could be a European club staple, “Song For Nico” in which Faithfull retells (with the help of Dave Stewart) the tragic story of the former Velvet Underground singer and fellow ’60s pop icon, is melodramatic and pairs some clever phrases with rudimentary ones.

Faithfull’s songs with Corgan, “I’m On Fire” and “Wherever I Go,” are cut from the icy, synth-heavy cloth that’s used by U2 and New Order from time to time. But the songs only heat up during the august choruses.

A pleasant surprise is the album’s hidden track, a cover of Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Into Something Good,” that gives a peak at a lighter side of Faithfull, one less more versatile than the noir-ish, streetwise image the songs on “Kissin’ Time” are based on.

Although being a muse means personifying an artist’s expectations to a certain extent, it’s to Faithfull’s credit that she’ll make musical choices on occasion that have her stepping down from that pedestal, if only for a moment.

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Aimee Mann “Lost In Space”

Let me give you some advice: I know this will sound like the ultimate insult for such a distinguished singer-songwriter as Aimee Mann, and I don’t mean it to be, but it’s probably for the best if you don’t pay too close attention to the song lyrics on her new album, “Lost In Space.”

This how you should approach this: listen to and marvel at these acoustic-based, pop melodies and maybe pick out a phrase or two along the way that you can sing along to but don’t try and dissect it. And whatever you do, don’t read any of the liner notes. You’ll be disappointed.

My problem isn’t with Mann’s musical skills — which have lost none of their inventiveness or emotionality. It was her confessional songwriting and pristine voice, after all, that earned her an Oscar nomination for her soundtrack for the movie, “Magnolia,” and then critical plaudits for her last disc, the equally seductive “Bachelor No. 2.”

But it’s a mystery why Mann is now stooping to populate her verses with cliches, as she is in many of the songs on “Lost In Space.” It’s disappointing to hear her employ tired terminology to describe her feelings when talking to a lover, like how it’s getting “harder to breathe” or “give me the fix” in the otherwise remarkable “Pavlov’s Bell.” In “Today’s The Day,” she sings about “sinking like a stone.” The track, “The Moth,” is devoted completely to — can you guess? — a moth’s suicidal attraction to a flame. Thankfully, there’s no talk of rivers or butterflies.

Despite this flaw, Mann is capable of redeeming herself, as she does on the album’s opener and first single, “Humpty Dumpty.” Of course, pop songs dredging up this nursery rhyme is old hat, but this song about a fractured relationship is surely a musical highlight of Mann’s career. It might be one of the best songs I’ve heard all year. The track, which is invigorated by some George Harrison-style slide guitar, builds teasingly towards a climax that never comes. It’s all anticipation with no let down.

On the inward-looking “Invisible Ink,” Mann sings a tender love song and yet expresses reservations about how she’s communicating it. “The plot is cliched,” she croons, staring straight at her problem. Yet again, her lilting melodies rescue what looks pedestrian on paper.

With her success of late and the fact that she operates her own independent record label, Mann has become the poster woman for creating music outside the grip of the major labels, and has been encouraging her fellow artists to think outside the box by banding together instead of becoming servants to the Man. Unfortunately, her lyrical choices on “Lost In Space” take few chances, unlike the bravery that she’s shown in business.

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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 2002 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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