A tale of three Beck albums (Part 2--"Guero").
This held true for about a week, until one day I had a Beck song stuck in my head, went looking all through "Modern Guilt" for it, and then realized that it was actually on "Guero". It had snuck up on me! And that's when I listened to the entire album once more, with a more open-minded approach, and had to admit that I had blown it. "Guero" is a really great album, easily the equal of "Modern Guilt". Its sound is more comparable to "Mellow Gold" and "Odelay" than any of his other records, so in that sense everyone who said Beck had made a return to the hip-hop sound that first made him famous was correct. But so what? "Guero" is chock full of good songs, and what's more, in a time where all the big hip-hop producers have fallen in love with ProTools and the big fashion in beat-making is minimalist, robotic-sounding clanks and beeps, it's nice to hear the layered, texture-heavy production of the Dust Brothers on a hip-hop flavored album. The Dust Brothers also produced "Odelay" and a bunch of other great albums from the so-called "golden age of hip-hop" in the late 80s and early 90s. I find their sound and production style much more interesting and enjoyable than the standard post-Y2K hip-hop sound.
"Guero" opens up with three incredible songs back to back; "E-Pro", "Que Onda Guero" and "Girl" constitute such a knockout punch that it's actually tough for the rest of the album to measure up. "E-Pro"'s chorus is driven by a garage-y guitar riff, but during the verses the dominant sound is the rumbling, low-frequency bass, which, combined with the heavy drum machine beat of the song, makes this track a perfect one to drive down the street blasting. It's the kind of song that will rattle the floorboard of your car and give all the Li'l John fans in their tricked-out SUV's a run for their money (assuming you have a good enough stereo, that is). With such a catchy chorus, it strays from a straight hip-hop sound and gives the indie kids a way in, but for me, the best parts are the pounding-bass verses.
"Que Onda Guero" follows "E-Pro" with a more Latin-infused sound, which is fitting for a song about walking down the streets of a Hispanic neighborhood, one assumes in East L.A. As the song goes on, Beck throws more and more Spanish phrases into the lyrics, until the last verse is more in Spanish than in English, and there's a constant stream of chatter running underneath the song, mostly in Spanish, which mimics the sound of a busy street in a Latino neighborhood. The boom-bap beats that are common on this album are still there holding down the rhythmic foundation of the song, but the horn line on the chorus is straight out of a Mariachi track. Oh, and concerning the title, I'm not that great with idiomatic Spanish at all, but from context clues I'm pretty sure it means "Where you goin, white boy?" Which, yes, would make the title of the album "White Boy", and on a related note, would make the title of Brujeria's first album, "Matando Gueros", mean "Killing White Boys". I've been wondering about that one for a long time--the fact that "guero" can also mean "head" in certain contexts, and that there was a severed head on the cover of the album, made me think it might mean "Chopping Off Heads", but I'd never heard "matar", "to kill", used in such a loose sense. So yeah, at long last, I'm pretty sure "Killing White Boys" is what Brujeria actually meant with that album title. Anyway, back to Beck.
The third song on "Guero", "Girl", is the song from this album that I first got stuck in my head. Unlike the first two songs here, it's overtly catchy. It is based around drum machine beats and some minor sampling, but unlike the first two songs on the album, there aren't really any hip-hop elements to "Girl". Instead, this is a straight-up pop song, with Beck strumming an acoustic guitar and singing an upbeat melody. Maybe that's why I thought it was from "Modern Guilt"--although it's more poppy than anything on that album, it's constructed in a manner more similar to songs on that album than to most of the other tracks on "Guero". That said, it's still probably the best song here, with a chorus that will get stuck in your head all day... and I'm living proof of that.
The album shifts gears after that; the fourth song, "Missing", almost has the feel of a 70s AM radio lite-rock chestnut. Its clicking and rattling beat is constructed more from a variety of percussion instruments than from any actual drums or machine beats, and the syncopated acoustic guitar riff (which brings to mind Neil Diamond) and the Mellotron string section that glides along underneath said riff all add together to yield a melodramatic emotional track that is just fast enough not to be a ballad. It could probably slide in under the radar of a lite-rock radio station if it were marketed the right way, but unlike a lot of the songs played on stations like that, it's actually really good.
It's hard for the later segments of this album to measure up to those first three songs, and perhaps as a result, I don't have as strong an impression of many of the remaining songs as I do of the earlier ones. "Black Tambourine" stands out as being catchy and fun, while "Hell Yes" is possibly the only failure on the album, going for too overt of a late 80s hip-hop sound and ending up seeming like it drags on forever despite its mere three-minute length. "Go It Alone" harks back to the folk songs on "Mellow Gold" that were given a hip-hop backbeat by producers; it didn't always work on that album, but works here. "Rental Car" is a strong enough track that, sequenced much earlier on the album, could have held its own with that opening one-two-three knockout punch. However, if placed alongside those other opening tracks, it might have just worn out the listener, so it's probably better where it is, second-to-last track on the album proper, bringing the catchy dance groove after the listener thought the time for such things had passed.
Finally, there are three songs tacked onto the end of the version of the album that I downloaded that were only released as bonus tracks on the Japanese import version of "Guero". Two of them are nothing to write home about, but the final track, "Crap Hands", is an excellent song that would have been a standout track even if it had been included on the album proper--which it should have been. It's probably the most overt dance track on the record, fueled by a funky beat that's based around a prominent cowbell. Beck is singing more than rapping on the track, but the music is entirely hip-hop based; no guitars, only synth basslines, and plenty of scratching. One assumes that the title is a play on the handclaps in the chorus and the way a person with a Japanese accent would pronounce "clap hands", and maybe that's why this song was only included on the Japanese version of the album, but it's really too good to toss off that way, and it's too bad Beck didn't find a way to get it onto the domestic release.
I've been known to say that Beck suffered a dropoff in release quality after "Sea Change", and indeed, called "Modern Guilt" a return to form when I first heard it. But I now feel kind of silly about that. After all, if "Guero" was actually this good the entire time, the only album of his that might actually represent a dropoff is "The Information", and I haven't heard that album at all. For all I know, he's stayed good the entire time, and only my fervent desire to hear another album like "Sea Change" kept me from noticing that.
The third Beck album that my tale concerns is "Odelay", about which, more tomorrow.
Beck - E-Pro
Beck - Girl
Beck - Crap Hands