Tuesday, August 6, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 538: Beck

I had a draining day today.  I couldn’t really put my finger on it, just the feeling of being pulled in a lot of directions.

Of course, staying up to write this blog entry is one more thing to get done, but it is a fun thing and if I’m being fair to the day, it was as full of fun moments like this as anything else.  As the saying goes:

“Two men look through the same bars
One sees the mud and one the stars.”

Here’s a disc that always puts me on the positive side of that half-full glass.

Disc 538 is…. Guero
Artist: Beck

Year of Release: 2005

What’s up with the Cover?  A drawing by someone named Marcel Dzama.  I find this cover equal parts obtuse and smug and in case it wasn’t clear – no, I don’t like it. 

How I Came To Know It:  I was already a Beck fan so this was just me buying another album by him when it came out.  

How It Stacks Up:  We have eight Beck albums, and this is one is my favourite.  Number one, baby!  I know I just finished giving “Sea Change” that designation, but I’ve got to bump “Guero” just ahead of that.

Rating:  5 stars

Some albums are just perfect for certain seasons, and “Guero” is the perfect summer album.  This is a top-down, beach-Frisbee, ice-cream-in-the-park kind of album.  It makes me feel young and carefree when I listen to it, and gives me a musical respite from all the various tasks and responsibilities that face me.  It is an album for feeling good.

It is quite a departure from his other great work, “Sea Change” (reviewed recently back at Disc 520.  “Sea Change” is tinged with sadness and self-reflection, feeling like it was conceived underwater.

“Guero” is like a surfer riding the top of that same ocean.  It has the funky syncopation and rapid fire free association poetry-rap of his first big album, “Mellow Gold,” but it incorporates all the musical experiments he has tried on the four intervening album as well.  The funk of “MidniteVultures” is here, toned down to fit into a more summer pop flavour, and less nightclub focused.  The strange technological samples and beats of “Odelay” and “Mutations” are used, but they are worked a lot more seamlessly into the song.

On top of all of these influences, Beck weaves in Mexican-flavoured pop and, unless I’m mistaken, the ghost of Dick Dale.  Not the guitar style, so much as an update to Dale’s effortless beach party vibe.

In short, this is a record that borrows from a lot of influences, mixes Beck’s own copious musical knowledge and somehow creates something wholly new that doesn’t ever sound bloated or pretentious (except, as noted above, the unfortunate cover art).

The free and easy feel is upheld by songs like “Que Onda Guero” with its distinctive Latin feel, but also “Girl,” “Black Tambourine” and “Scarecrow” which are all songs for driving fast with your hair blowing in the wind.

Beck finds room for songs that push the album in different directions, while maintaining the overall feel of the record as well.  “Hell, Yes” is a techno-sample driven song that takes a lot of the lessons learned on 1996’s “Odelay” and just makes them demonstrably more…listenable.  Yes, music snobs, I just put “Odelay” in its place.  That album may be innovative, but it isn’t easy to listen to, and being enjoyable to the ear should always be an important part of music.

Hell, Yes” is a joy to listen to, with odd drum beats and a variety of samples that apart sound like a jumble, but collectively form into a catchy and extremely innovative riff as good as any straightforward rock song.  When I hear the sample of a young girl saying matter-of-factly “Your beat is nice/your beat is correct” I always find myself smiling and agreeing with her assessment.  In fact, she’s so convincing that in the years since first hearing “Guero” Sheila and I will both indicate our approval of something by using this phrase.  It is a bit weird, but hey – so are we.

Going in another direction is “Farewell Ride” which has all the slow groove of “Guero” but incorporates some of the grim finality that made “Sea Change” such a brilliant album.  While this song is ostensibly about two horses taking a coffin to the cemetery, it is hard not to draw drug allusions:

“Two white horses in a line
Taking me for my farewell ride.”

Horse being a slang expression for heroin, it is easy to imagine two lines of it putting someone into overdose or – in this case – a farewell ride.  The fact that it is never spelled out as such makes me appreciate it more.

I’m not in the habit of giving an album like this five stars without it “changing me somehow” (see the ‘rules’ sidebar), but “Guero” just doesn’t hit any wrong notes.  It is only thirteen songs long, I like every one of them in some way or other, and as a collection it takes you for a nice ride and leaves you relaxed at the end of it, like a warm breeze on a summer day that carries away your troubles.  Sometimes, that's all you need in life.

Best tracks:  I like all the tracks, but in particular I like Que Onda Guero, Girl, Black Tambourine, Hell Yes, Scarecrow, Got It Alone, and Farewell Ride,

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