2006 / Music

Review: Beck’s ‘Information’ Is Bad News

Alt-Rock Wunderkind Releases First Certifiable Dud

More than 12 years since he exploded on the music scene with one of the ’90s hallmark yet most unlikely anthems, Beck still seems to delight in being the music’s equivalent of a shell game.

Photo: DGC Records

Photo: DGC Records

Like David Bowie before him, he’s consistently marveled us by staying one step ahead of audience expectations, relishing in our surprise at his genre-splicing and musical dexterity. On one record, he’s a post-modern bluesman. On the next, he’s the quasi-comic, rapping hipster. On another, he’s the introspective singer-songwriter.

His new album, “The Information,” might be the most shocking of all: It’s his worst.

In an era when so many pop stars’ careers seem ephemeral (and acceptably so), Beck has had a run of great albums that compare with rock’s ’60s and ’70s pantheon. “The Information” certifiably puts an end to his winning streak.

Beck’s track record isn’t spotless. It’s been tainted by the occasional clunker. Some great songs were hampered by the glammy, clownish R&B posturing and faux funk sleaziness that enveloped “Midnite Vultures” like a feather boa; the act grew old very quickly. On his last, befuddling LP, “Guero,” Beck seemed to be too closely revisiting and rewriting songs from his “Odelay” and “Mutations” albums. On both records, it seemed Beck was sometimes trying to get by with incomplete musical ideas packaged in atypical sonic approaches. One could hear that Beck was faking it.

“The Information” is still very surprising and disappointing in that never before has one of Beck’s records seemed so unredeemable. The disc is yet another return to the hip-hop, mix-match approach that he perfected on his first records. But unlike before, many of the new songs are muddled by the fragments that he’s pasted together and some are almost completely unmelodic. It comes across like alternative rock’s hippest collage artist has become thoroughly confused by his own cutting and pasting.

A lack of compelling melodies is the record’s incessant flaw. Songs like “Elevator Music,” “We Dance Alone” and the album’s title track were obviously created from the booming beat up, and they apparently received most of the focus. The melody was likely the last touch added and it shows. What Beck ultimately comes up with to fill this gap either doesn’t better the song or really says nothing of consequence.

“1000BPM” is one of the worst of the bunch. A massive, stiff bassline parries with clanging cowbells for a thoroughly unenjoyable rhythm. To really shine the song up, Beck achieves what should be nearly impossible for someone as talented as he is: With his Captain Beefheart-inspired rapping, he wows listeners with his unrhyming, unrhythmic rhymes.

The record’s producer, Nigel Godrich, who has steered two of Beck’s greatest albums, “Mutations” and “Sea Change,” is of little assistance. His influence, so prevalent on those albums, appears to take a back seat on “The Information.” Godrich’s telltale fingerprints can really only be heard in the familiar shimmering production that he mastered on the previous discs — echo-laden chime effects and mournful, swelling keyboards.

While they never redeem the record, there are brief glimpses of Beck’s formidable talents. “I Think I’m In Love” has a sublime chorus and a catchy, early Beatles guitar pattern reminiscent of “The New Pollution” from the “Odelay” years. “Nausea” and “No Complaints” both have punchy, “Led Zeppelin III” acoustic guitar riffs. “Strange Apparition” smartly pairs a bossa nova-influenced percussive rhythm with an uptempo, Rolling Stones piano. There’s a dark, low-end groove in “Dark Star” that is funky and appealing as it comes sauntering out of speakers. But, in all these cases, those elements of the songs that are new and pleasing are either undercut by their brevity, go on too long or are mismatched with Beck’s lyrically uninspired, soul-less vocals.

Another ill-fitting experiment that comes bundled with “The Information” is the DVD that is packaged with the CD. Most of the early press for the album has zeroed in on the fact that there are these cheap-looking, homemade videos of all the album’s songs. Nearly every clip surprisingly recalls the video for Beck’s first mega-hit, “Loser,” where we got a view of an absurdist world of strange-looking drifters, burnouts and hipsters mugging in wacky costumes.

Beck, his tussled, golden hair now chin-length like it was in the old days, sings each song in deer-in-headlights deadpan while the geeky glitterati circus carouses behind him. Each segment is overwhelmed by ’80-ish video effects like frames that are solarized and/or washed-out. People in bear costumes pretend to rap while a woman in a tutu and Ronald Reagan mask pirouettes. Viewers can spy cameo appearances by neo-hippie singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart in drag, members of his backing band rocking hard on key-tars and sitars and Beck’s wife, Marissa Ribisi (sister of actor Giovanni), and young son slipping on and off camera. The results are amusing but hardly something worth sitting through. If this tact proves to be breakthrough in keeping the CD alive in the download era, it’s a poor, humble start.

Rather than setting a trend, the DVD’s inclusion comes across just like his previous musical stumbles: as a crutch to boost subpar material. Beck seems creatively tired and the fact that “Guero” re-explored this same territory with equally uneven results suggests bolder steps are needed next time he hits the studio.

If we carry on with the shell game analogy a bit further, “The Information” makes for one final surprise. In most games of this ilk, there are winners and losers. In this instance, however, everyone loses.

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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 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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