Play That Funky Music, Guero
Beck Surprises (And Satisfies) Again

The first Crowded House song I ever heard wasn’t one of their ubiquitous singles, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong.” Rather, it was a live slam-through of “World Where You Live,” the opening track on their excellent 1986 debut album. The trio performed the song on MTV, for some reason, and it must have been after at least one of those singles hit big, but I vividly remember “World Where You Live” as my introduction. I especially remember the pounding, inescapable drum beat – for a while after I heard it, that’s pretty much all I remembered about it.

Of course, I was 12 at the time, and didn’t know much about music. Very few of my favorite bands during that time have traveled with me into adulthood, but with Crowded House, I somehow stumbled upon something magical. Neil Finn remains one of my favorite songwriters, and I have journeyed back and forth through his catalog, picking up his work with Split Enz and breathlessly awaiting his solo projects. Still, the four Crowded House albums have a special place in my heart, one that I don’t think either Finn brother will ever replace. And it all started for me with that thunderous drum beat on MTV.

Now I hear that Paul Hester, the author of that beat, is dead, the latest in an apparent string of suicides. Hester handled the drums in Split Enz as well, so if you’ve ever found yourself grooving to their powerhouse hit “I See Red,” well, it was at least half his doing. I don’t have much to say about Hester’s death, but I just wanted to acknowledge it here, since his band made such an impression on a much younger me. Crowded House was something of a gateway drug to other quality music for me, including the Beatles, so I owe them.

Rest in peace, Paul.

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I think it’s about time we gave up looking for the “real” Beck.

Since he first cut-and-pasted his way onto the scene with his 1994 smash “Loser,” Beck has been confounding those listeners who like to develop personal connections with artists. Thirteen years later, he’s crafted a catalog that’s as extensive as it is inscrutable, and it’s about time we all realize that this is as open as he’s likely to ever be. His ironic demeanor even cast doubt upon 2002’s Sea Change, a glorious acoustic record that may have been sincere, but could just as easily have been another pastiche. All we seem to know about Beck Hansen at this point is that he loves 5,000 different types of music, and often likes playing them all at once.

Even comparing him to David Bowie doesn’t quite work, although it’s done all the time. Beck takes his musical chameleon style from Bowie, certainly, but where Bowie created characters and staged grand science fiction plays to couch his insights, Beck remains oddly straightforward. Difficult as it may seem to grasp, I’m coming around to the idea that the Cuisinart master who made Odelay, the white boy funker who shimmied through Midnite Vultures and the dust bowl folkie who spun One Foot in the Grave are all the same guy, just being himself. They’re all the “real” Beck.

After eight albums of insane musical variety, the element of surprise is all but gone from a new Beck album. It’s almost the opposite of the AC/DC effect – Angs Young will always sound the same, and Beck will always sound like somebody new each time out. Guero, his just-released ninth record, follows that tradition. Forget all that jive you’re reading about it being a “classic” Beck album. There’s no such thing. If anything, Guero takes some of Beck’s previous styles and combines them in interesting ways, but for the most part, it sounds like the work of a completely new artist again.

The title is apparently a Spanish slang word for “white boy,” but the Latin quotient is only amped up on “Que Onda Guero,” an atmospheric rap tune that doubles as a stroll through the barrio. Elsewhere, Beck has brought his blues influence to the table, creating perhaps his most Robert Johnson-inspired record. The slide acoustics of “Loser” are back, married to beats courtesy of the Dust Brothers, but even bluesier and less poppy.

In fact, this album is surprisingly somber and subdued. It’s very much like the brokenhearted Beck of Sea Change drove down to Louisiana and tried to make Odelay. For a while, the beats and samples try to cheer him up, as on the opener (and first single) “E-Pro” and the super-poppy “Girl,” but after the first few tracks, the Brothers kind of sit back and let Beck drive the bus down to the Delta. “Missing” includes the arresting string lines that made Sea Change so riveting, “Broken Drum” levitates on lovely piano, and “Farewell Ride” sounds almost like it would fall over if it tried to stand up, so wavery is its blues. One gets the sense that a track like “Hell Yes” is only here because that’s what’s expected of an upbeat Beck album, and his heart isn’t really in it.

The patchwork effect Beck pioneered on Mellow Gold and Odelay is still in evidence, but toned down and in service to the songs. (Check out Petra Haden’s quick vocal cameo on “Rental Car,” a late-album rocker.) But Guero contains virtually none of the giddy joy of those records. Lyrically, Beck is still in a desperate space, and the album is full of references to death and despair. “I prayed heaven today would bring its hammer down on me and pound you out of my head,” he moans at the start of “Missing,” and later, on the great “Earthquake Weather,” he mutters, “The days go slow into a void we’ve filled with death.” Closer “Emergency Exit” might be his most depressing song, with its images of landfill graves and scarecrow shadows.

As someone who appreciates Odelay but loves Sea Change, I think this dark undercurrent only strengthens the record. Guero contains its share of formless filler, like “Black Tambourine” and “Hell Yes,” but it also sports some of his finest songs, and the top-notch production keeps things busy, yet simultaneously sparse, in an odd way. It sounds like nothing else he’s done, and yet serves as a mature summation of where he’s been. Of course, there’s no point in trying to guess where Beck Hansen will go next, but if the depth of Guero is any indication, he’s done with the sound-for-sound’s-sake phase of his career, and the resultant sophistication bodes well for whichever musical path he decides to take.

Of course, he could just as easily make a record full of Mariachi nursery rhymes. He’s just like that.

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I am writing this at my friend Ray’s house, two days from the end of my Easter vacation, so I need to thank him and his family for the use of the computer and ‘net connection that made this column possible. I plan to drive back to Illinois on Saturday, just in time for the Red Sox’ opening day on Sunday. (David Wells? What the hell…?)

Next week, Glen Phillips and/or Over the Rhine.

See you in line Tuesday morning.