It would be too simple to call Beck a mere musician. It would be more appropriate to call him a sonic craftsman. He has proven to have a damn near inexhaustible, kaleidoscopic vision of music.
Since the 1994 release of his first earnest album, “Mellow Gold,” – an album recorded with the strange intentions of laying hip-hop beats over folk songs – it has proven almost impossible to track him, to pigeonhole him, to calculate his next move.
“Guero.” It’s Spanish slang. It means “white boy.” It’s the name Beck chose for his sixth major release. And of all the incarnations Beck has assumed in the 11 years since “Mellow Gold,” it is, perhaps, the only adjective that can transcend his body of work.
He’s been a crooner of junkyard folk. He’s been a funkmaster, a Prince disciple, an R&B smooth-talker. He’s worn the leather pants of some quiet sex machine. He’s danced like water flows. He’s stood with the swagger of a hipster. He’s sang as a pained singer/songwriter. He’s rapped, but understood the irony. His albums have arced back and forth between melancholic and haunting – a la “Mutations” and “Sea Change” – and irreverent – see “Odelay” and “Midnite Vultures.” He has always been a white boy wearing different hats.
While his trademark sonic playfulness remains intact on his latest work, “Guero,” there is something more refined about the whole package. Something remarkably mature.
It finds Beck reunited with producers the Dust Brothers, the hands behind his 1996 release “Odelay,” the epic album by whose vaunted glory all his other albums will be forever judged. And, yes, “Guero” does sound a lot like “Odelay” revisited, glossed. Which isn’t meant to be read as a negative. The album is solid, but the hands behind them are steadier, more wizened.
From the opening strains of “E-Pro,” the album’s first track and first single, it’s engaging. That’s an understatement. It hits you: buzzsaw guitar and real heavy drums. It’s damned catchy.
Damned catchy is probably the best means of going about describing the thing from start to finish. Where “Odelay” oozed with enough brilliance to make your head spin, “Guero” makes you nod your head, tap your feet.
It’s more than just a rehashing of “Odelay,” however. What we’re given is a wonderful m?lange of a lot of the musical avenues down which Beck has trod over the years: from hip-hop, Brazilian rhythms, blues, samples of the Temptations, to country, pop and weeping, mellifluous string arrangements.
“Missing” recalls the sadness of “Sea Change” with a touch of “Tropicalia” as well. “Broken Drum” plods with a piano and some electronic squeals. But the somber moments do not dominate here.
A few tracks later we meet the infectious “Hell Yes,” which puts Beck back in the shoes of a rapper with his tongue stuck quite firmly in his cheek. “Hell Yes,” groans some computer voice over absurd beats and Beck throws out, “I’m movin’ this way, I’m doin’ this thing,” and the un-credited voice of Christina Ricci, in an anime geisha voice, adds: “Please enjoy.” And back to Beck: “I’m turnin’ it on, I’m workin’ my legs.”
For blues, we have the grooving and almost sinister track “Go It Alone,” featuring White Stripes front man Jack White on bass. Studded by handclaps and growling work on the guitar overtop White’s percussive bass line. We see country influences shining through on tracks like “Emergency Exit” and “Farewell Ride,” each built over the twang of a slide guitar.
His childish glee at toying with sound is still clear. All the songs are overlain with sonic weirdness, hisses and pops, the dragging of chains, spacey echoing voices or, as “Rental Car” breaks down into a chorus of seriously girlish, rapid-fire “La-la-la-la’s” before a funk infused drum-fill brings it back to the refrain, or the Beach Boy harmonies of “Girl.”
So I guess Beck is all grown up now. In his 30s. Married. With child. Mind still buzzing with a million sonic influences. But now he possesses the perspective to bring all the elements, as starkly juxtaposed as they may be, to bear in a mature and cohesive way.