A tale of three Beck albums (Part 1--"Modern Guilt").

I've always thought of myself as a Beck fan in the abstract. I own quite a few of his albums, and the songs I think of when I think of Beck ("Loser", "Asshole", "Steve Threw Up", "Guess I'm Doing Fine", "Beercan") are songs I really like. However, the recent release of his album "Modern Guilt" brought something to my attention: for the most part, I haven't listened to most of Beck's albums more than a couple times. "One Foot In The Grave" has held a place of honor in my personal pantheon for a long time, and "Sea Change" was the perfect album at the perfect time for me, so I played it a lot back when it was new. But other than those two and "Mellow Gold", which I honestly haven't played since not long after it came out (even if I did play it a LOT back then), I haven't listened to all that much by Beck.

Maybe part of that is because of the fact that, in my mind, there are three different Becks. The original Beck, the folk Beck, is the guy I heard about in Flipside magazine back before he was famous. When "Loser" broke big and gave the world a second, much more popular Beck, I felt like he was trying on an alternate personality, and that the real Beck was the one who put out a folk album on K the same year that "Loser" was all over the radio. I had to admit, though, that that second Beck, the hip-hop dabbler, the sampling maestro, was not without his charms. On "Mellow Gold", he sometimes played the same style of folk/blues that he'd started with, as on "Pay No Mind" and "Steal My Body Home", and at other times, he'd create these lo-fi sample-and-feedback-heavy pop tunes that reminded me of what I loved about the early Sebadoh albums. And even the hip-hop silliness had its appeal--the aforementioned "Loser" and "Beercan" were songs that I loved, and to this day I will sometimes catch myself singing the "Quit my job blowin' leaves" verse of "Beercan" under my breath, even though I haven't heard it since sometime late in the last milennium.

The two Becks traded albums for quite a while after that initial burst of popularity; the hip-hop Beck had a huge hit with 1996's "Odelay", an album that produced several hit singles and proved to the mainstream that Beck was more than just "the 'Loser' guy". Then the folk Beck followed it up with "Mutations". Whichever Beck he was when he released "Midnite Vultures", he lost me completely, and apparently lost a lot of other people too, but the folk Beck reappeared in 2002 to redeem himself with "Sea Change". Really, honestly, I only stopped paying attention to beck when he followed "Sea Change" with "Guero"; I'd gotten used to the idea that the "Mellow Gold"/"Odelay" Beck was a thing of the past, and when I read about "Guero" that it was a return to that sound, I guess I decided that he couldn't possibly have anything new to say in that style, and proceeded to ignore the album completely. I ignored "The Information", too, an album that even those who had loved "Guero" were generally put off by, and I really have no idea why I decided to tune back in for "Modern Guilt". Maybe it was for no better reason than the fact that I've been bored with a lot of my standard musical touchstones--I had worked my way deep enough into garage and psychedelic rock to realize that all of the truly A-list material had been discovered; hardcore hasn't seemed like it's had much to offer for a while now; and other than Paramore, the emo scene hasn't produced anything that's stuck with me for a couple of years either (we may have to discuss Paramore sometime soon, though). So I'm sitting there thinking "What the hell should I listen to? What's new right now that offers potential diversion?", and I latched onto the new Beck album.

I'm glad I did. "Modern Guilt" is an outstanding record, every bit as good as the Beck albums that I loved so much back in the 90s. It's hard to say which of the two Becks this is, though--it's kind of both, and kind of neither. Rather than any elements of folk, I'd say that this album contains more of an alternative rock basis than anything else. However, the laid-back melodies that marked the best of Beck's folk work are here in spades. Meanwhile, it's not a hip-hop album either, because while there are samples in places and drum machine beats in others, the emphasis here is solidly on melodic singing. No rapping happens anywhere on "Modern Guilt".

So OK, the best way to describe "Modern Guilt" in terms of Beck's previous work is to point out ways in which it differs from that work. That involves me telling you what it is not, as I have just done. So what IS it? Well, catchy, for one. Opening track "Orphans" begins with an ominous, throbbing, synthesized bassline and a skittering drum machine beat, but within 10 seconds, this intro stops dead and is replaced by acoustic guitar strums that bring in the verse. Once the verse starts, though, the throbbing bassline and drum machine beat jump right back in, even as Beck continues to strum his acoustic guitar and begins to sing the overtly melodic verse. As the song continues on, the push and pull between the synthetic rhythm track and the very human sounds of the acoustic guitar and lead vocal is constant; the bassline and drum machine jump in and drop out, and the acoustic guitar is sometimes spotlighted but at other times is buried beneath layers of samples and keyboards that overlay the basic melody. The more human side of the battle is joined by live drumming that overtakes the drum machine completely by the end of the song, but the ultimate end of "Orphans" involves what had started out as a pretty simple pop song being played by both acoustic and synthetic instruments becoming a huge tapestry of melodic drones and psychedelic layering. It's pretty much a blueprint for the entire album. "Modern Guilt" is a concise record made up of ten three-to-four-minute pop songs, and all of them are extensively layered with all sorts of different sounds from every facet of Beck's career: drum machine beats, acoustic guitars, catchy choruses, harmonically droning keyboards, it's all here.

"Chemtrails", the longest track on the album, starts out with a churchy vibe, as Beck's vocals echo over a choral-sounding organ line. When the rhythm section comes in, the frenetic drumming and driving bassline nearly drown Beck out completely. His words are hard to distinguish even when he's only accompanied by the organ, and the bass and drums, in contrast to the echoed sound of the organ and vocal, are right up front in the listener's face, turning what could have been a psych-drone track into an uptempo rocker. But that droning melodic hum is always there in the background, lifting the song out of the earthbound groove created by the rhythm section.

The shuffling groove of the title track makes it the most immediately catchy tune here, and its instrumentation is pretty straightforward--bass, drums, piano, the occasional lead guitar line, Beck's vocal, and every now and then, an electric piano squiggle of some sort. It's a quintessential Beck song, but at the same time, it's missing a lot of the elements that one gets used to from Beck--no samples, no drum machines, no acoustic guitars, no silly lyrics. It's just a good song, one that sort of reminds me of John Lennon's later solo work.

Other songs on "Modern Guilt" alternate between the different modes of operation seen here and in previous Beck albums. "Youthless" is a catchy dance track based around an incredibly funky bassline. "Walls" puts a string section and a crooning Beck vocal over a snare-heavy boom-bap drumbeat that may or may not be produced by machine. "Replica" mixes skittering machine beats with echoing electric piano notes. "Soul Of A Man" is driven by a down n' dirty distorted bassline that would fit right in on a White Stripes album.

In sum, the whole thing is excellent. As with R.E.M.'s most recent album, "Modern Guilt" is short, but if anything, this just makes it better; there's no possibility of watering the album down with filler, or having the songs get samey after a while. The listener is left wanting more, which is always the best way to do it.

And I guess that's why, soon after I downloaded and fell in love with "Modern Guilt", I hunted down a copy of "Guero". More on that next time.

Beck - Orphans
Beck - Modern Guilt



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