Ghettochip Malfunction
Beck Fails to Justify Guerolito

I’m going to try to slam this one out as quickly as I can.

Lord knows why I don’t just take the week off. I’ve certainly earned it this year – this will be column #52 for 2005, two over my quota. I wrote four stories for the newspaper today, too, and I’m dead tired. My left eye is throbbing from too much staring at computer screens, and I still have a lot of work to do on my Christmas stuff before next week.

You know, that week off is starting to sound like a better idea…

But no. Just one review, though, and I’m going to bed. Forthwith, my last full-length review for Aught Five:

* * * * *

I finished the top 10 list last week, and I found myself surprised by some of the entries, and their places in the list. I love it when that happens – when the simple act of listing favorites defines them for me, as if I didn’t know what I thought until I sat down to write it out. And in many ways, especially in the bottom half of the list, I didn’t.

For example, here’s something that surprised me: Beck’s Guero didn’t make it.

I think in most other years, it probably would have – it was undoubtedly one of the best albums I heard in 2005, just not one of the 10 best. But when I first heard it, back in March, I thought it was a sure bet. Beck has always been a peripheral artist for me, mainly because I’m never certain when I can take him seriously – he’s a terrific sonic architect, and his work is many different shades of fun, but until recently, it’s all sounded a little disconnected.

Not so his 2003 masterpiece Sea Change, a broken-hearted and organic work that spun layers of melancholy magic. I still didn’t get the sense that I was listening to the “real” Beck, whoever that is, but on Sea Change, he sounded more invested in the emotional content of the music than I’d ever heard him. I fully expected a return to ironically distant form on the follow-up, which is why Guero was such a pleasant surprise. It’s just as cut-and-splice as something like Odelay, just as concerned with sonics and beats and samples, but the emotions of Sea Change are still central.

In short, I think it may be his best album, or at least the one that synthesizes his many personalities the best. It’s the quintessential Beck record, and the more I listened to it, the more I liked it. It answered my lingering question about his career with aplomb. Which one of these guys is the real Beck? All of them.

So now that he’s told us, with his two most complete statements, who he thinks he is, Beck has decided to give others the chance to provide new sides to his persona. Guerolito is the companion disc to Guero, an album that needs no companion whatsoever, so it’s hard to justify this album’s existence – it’s a track-by-track remix of Guero by some of the most interesting names in electronic music. And like all remix records, some of the tracks redefine their original counterparts, and some are superfluous.

So why even release it? Well, it’s an interesting experiment in some ways – the remix record has long been the province of electronic music, and Beck is certainly influenced by some of that, although he blends it with blues and pop and soul and folk and a dozen other things to form something uniquely him. Gueroilito lives up to its name (essentially Guero Lite) by focusing on the electronic elements above all else. This is Beck’s first electro-pop album, in a way, and while I miss the genre-jumping of the original tracks, it is interesting to hear him in these settings.

But beyond that, there ain’t much. The best tracks come from the most famous artists, oddly enough. Air’s take on “Missing,” here called “Heaven Hammer,” is atmospheric and moody, while Beastie Boy AdRock takes a simple filler track (“Black Tambourine”) and makes something worthwhile out of it. Boards of Canada steals the whole show with their ambient-wonder version of “Broken Drum,” amplifying the minimalism of the original with cascading layers of backwards sound.

But some of the tracks are just dull, and won’t do much for anyone who already has the album. The ridiculously-named Th’ Corn Gangg strip “Emergency Exit” of everything that was cool about it, and add tacky drums and synths instead. The blues has been sucked out of Diplo’s remix of “Go It Alone,” which is a shame – the blues comprised a key element of Guero’s success, and Diplo is not the only remixer to ignore that. I was glad to hear that John King kept Petra Haden’s mindblowing contribution to “Rental Car,” but the rest of the remix is no great shakes.

Guerolito ends with “Clap Hands,” a new track that, presumably, didn’t make Guero. I hate to say it, but it’s kind of easy to see why – it sounds like a half-empty rough draft for some of Guero’s sonic journeys. Really, this whole thing didn’t need to exist, and I’m kind of sad that it does, because the album it purports to reinvent was such an achievement. Beck may not have made my list this year, but Guero found him producing some of his finest, most heartfelt music, and Guerolito somewhat cheapens that.

But only somewhat.

Next week, the fabled top 10 list. And about 18 honorable mentions. It was a very good year.

See you in line Tuesday morning.