Music Review: Beck's Modern Guilt

by Rick Rockwell

Perhaps Beck should be known as the great amalgamator.

On his eighth full-length studio release for a major label (Beck has a variety of EPs, singles and indie label releases too), Beck Hansen (who coolly uses just his first name as his stage moniker) subtly turns up the tremolo on his guitar and appropriates touches of surf rock. Modern Guilt is the pleasing result. Always an artist interested in a pastiche of aural styles to reflect his native Los Angeles, Beck has stayed away from the beach, until now.

Beck’s early break-out LPs in the mid-1990s, Mellow Gold and Odelay were full of rap-inspired songs, samples, drum machines and electronica cut and paste. On the Grammy-winning Mutations in 1998, Beck went back to his folk and blues roots. (As a street musician in Europe, New York City and L.A. in the 1980s, Beck was known for playing punky folk songs and blues.) With Guero in 2005, Beck peppered a few Latin influences into his heady rock stew. And like many notable rock composers, Beck takes these outside sounds, puts them in his rock ‘n roll blender and voila: a new pleasing sonic cocktail.

Well, if Modern Guilt is meant for cocktail sipping, then bring on the fuzzy navels and throw in a sex on the beach, for good measure.

“Chemtrails” the album’s first single actually aims for harder psychotropic territory: Beck sings like Mike Love on an acid trip. (The lyrics include these lines: “You and me watching a sea full of people / Try not to drown / So many people / Where do they go / You and me / Watching a sky / Full of chemtrails.”) Indeed, the song channels Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, but adds just a dash of San Francisco psychedelia to Jason Falkner’s understated surf guitar bubbling underneath the mix. (One of the founders of the influential Jellyfish, a power pop band from the ‘90s, Falkner has provided session guitar work for various Beck releases during this decade, but many of the surf guitar tones on Modern Guilt are added directly by Beck.)

For those who cut their teeth on Beck’s early FM hits “Loser” (1994), “Devil’s Haircut,” and “Where It’s At” (both 1996), the teaming of the prolific Danger Mouse* from Gnarls Barkley (Danger Mouse: Brian Burton, by his real name) would seem to signal a return to the rap-rock of old. Instead, Danger Mouse just adds more layers of sound to Beck’s already thick blend of electronic dabbling. The mix is so thick at times you may miss the backing vocals of Chan Marshall (otherwise known as Cat Power) on a few tracks. Think of this release as the logical extension of where Beck was heading on The Information from 2006. Last year’s Grammy-nominated single “Timebomb” (which does not show up on Modern Guilt) also hinted at what Beck has laid out on this album.

Some of this album's better numbers have special touches that long-time fans of Beck should appreciate. “Replica” plays with complex beats. Danger Mouse tosses in some backward masking on “Soul of a Man.” The biggest pop hook on this release is in “Profanity Prayers,” which Beck and his producer propel forward with a pounding drum track. On “Gamma Ray,” Beck gives a lyrical nod to the blues (“Smokestack lightning out my window”) as the surf guitars blare. And the title track seems like a trippy sequel to Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” from the 1980s.

If you’re looking for a dreamy soundtrack for the rest of your summer, Modern Guilt could be just the right pick. My suggestion: a thermos of cocktails, a chaise lounge, and this new release in your headphones at the beach. Don’t forget the sunscreen.

*Danger Mouse also produced one of the best albums of 2008, so far, Attack & Release by The Black Keys. For a review of that album, please go here.

(The photo of Beck performing at the Yahoo! headquarters in Sunnyvale, CA in 2006 is by [177] of San Jose, CA via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see Beck performing "Modern Guilt" at The Echo in Los Angeles in June, please check below.)

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