Thursday, August 7, 2008

Beck -- Modern Guilt (2008)

Beck -- Modern Guilt (DGC)

Generally, lyrics are not the first thing that grabs me when I listen to a song. Beyond a memorable phrase or line in the chorus, it’s the music that gets me first. Then the words follow. And depending upon the nature of the music, the lyrics either enhance the tunes or at least don’t interfere with them. In some instances, however, bad lyrics, or lyrics that don’t mesh with the music can ruin a song.

Beck is definitely a music first artist for me. His elaborate sonic constructions and haunting melodic sense usually work right away. As for his words, he’s one of the rare artists for whom I find a message or meaning to usually be more of a distraction than an enhancement. When he’s at his nuttiest, on albums like Midnight Vultures, he puts together oddball rhymes that are tailor made for his melange of rap, funk, rock and folk and whatever else he can think of.

When he goes for something more meaningful, it often doesn’t work for me. There are two reason for this: 1) when he’s tried to say something with his music, he often reveals himself to be a bit mundane in the ol’ observation department, and, 2) the tunes themselves sometimes suffer, since he wants the words to ground the tunes.

On Modern Guilt, Beck is trying to make some statements, but still keep the music more interesting. He teams up with Danger Mouse, who is extremely sympathetic to Beck’s musical notions. Arguably, he’s too sympathetic -- it could be said that the Mouse and Beck go together like peanut butter and peanut butter. They certainly have a lot in common.

This isn’t a bad thing, by any means, but it just means that the combination isn’t as mindblowing as one might think it would be. At times, I find myself identifying contributions that are clearly Danger Mouse’s, and there are a few. More often then not, their similar sensibilities are such that Danger Mouse’s sonic fingerprints are not obvious. You’d have to dust the master tapes for latent prints.

Meanwhile, Beck’s stabs at relevance prove to be a bit more effective than on albums like Sea Change. Instead of talking about the travails of the broken hearted, Beck is focusing on societal issues such as the environment. He’s no Joe Strummer, but the messages and the music seem to go together pretty well. Perhaps its because the messages lack specificity and get subsumed in the mood of the tunes. Or he’s content to allow indulge in some wordplay to keep things from getting too heavy.

So when he sings about the “icecaps melting down” in “Gamma Ray” over a rhythm track with some frugworthy ‘60-styled guitar, it goes down really easy. The with-it tuneage melds well with the wispy melody and Beck’s typically matter-of-fact vocals. Likewise, the lines “You got warheads stacked in the kitchen/you treat distraction like it’s a religion” are somewhat thought provoking, but also just sound good with the repetitive ‘60s faux jazz backing. Whatever commentary he is undertaking isn’t exactly coherent, but the lyrics flow like his more clever and jokey stuff.

The most Gnarls-like track? That’s debatable (and, I suppose, the same could be said for the most Gorrillaz-y tune). One nominee would be the title track. This is one of the purest pop songs, with a strong insistent keyboard line carrying the song. It’s a bit like Leon Russell’s “Tightrope”. Just a bit.

My favorite songs are the two prettiest songs on the record. The album closer “Volcano”, is built on a basic blues chord structure and it unfolds into a rising melody that is augmented by disembodied choral singing. It’s a haunting, contemplative number. Meanwhile, “Chemtrails” is soaring ethereal psychedelic tinged pop. Jason Falkner contributes bass and guitar and perhaps tips on what Air does (Jason’s played bass for them on tour), as this song hits a vibe that is similar to some of the best of that French duo. The song is fatalistic and comforting at the same time.

For some reason, although this album sounds good and there are certainly some great moments on it, it feels like it’s missing something. It’s rather short -- 10 tracks in just under 34 minutes -- which isn’t always a problem (aren’t most albums too long?). But in this case, maybe one or two more tunes may have helped. On the other hand, from the time I started thinking about this review until the time I’m finishing up here, I like the album more and more. Not essential, I guess, but worth having.

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