the bored-on-Friday-night album update
13 & God, 13 & God - I don't think I've written about this here before, although I started listening to it maybe 2 months ago. I thought the press reception would be as chilly as my disappointed reaction, but to my surprise critics have taken the bait. I frankly can't stand the Themselves approach to rap, which is very loose ("poetic") and, to my way of thinking, unnecesarily ornate without saying much. Nor do I find much to admire in the sparse backing from the Notwist. Both parties get props for melding their styles so that the idea of a hip-hop collaboration with the Notwist isn't as absurd as when I first read about it, but I'm not terribly thrilled by the end product, and this probably has a lot to do with Themselves; I'm guesssing both parties made exactly the album they wanted to make, for what it's worth. Attention should be paid, however, to "Men Of Station," the canny choice for a first single in which the presence of Themselves is blissfully inaudible. It's the kind of gorgeous, string-laden, lyrically vague melancholy you'd expect from the makers of Neon Golden.
Beck, Guero - Both a return to form (after the catastrophically monochromatic Sea Change) and one of Beck's weakest albums, Guero is the rough equivalent of trying to merge the technique of Odelay! with the weariness of Mutations - it just doesn't work. The thing is that Party Beck is actually incredibly cerebral, working out his genre cross-breeding with infinite patience, which is why, e.g., the banjo kicking in on Midnite Vultures' "Sexx Laws" sounds revelatory the first time and amazingly galvanizing on subsequent listens, but, paradoxically, listening to Party Beck is actually more work, because he's asking you to take more leaps. By contrast, Somber Beck is an incredibly intuitive sort: he sounds both familiar and refreshing, which is why Mutations is a lot of people's favorite Beck album, including mine. There's no question whether that or Odelay! is more innovative/groundbreaking/etc., but there's also no question which I'm more likely to listen to, particularly at the end of a long day.
On Guero, being Party Beck sounds like a strain for the first time: lead single "E-Pro" deploys an incredibly catchy hook around minimal instrumentation, dense fuzz, and a "na-na-na" chorus, but the feel is closer to grimy Mellow Gold try-out than Dust Brothers-sponsored party. Second single "Girl" appears to do all the things a Beck song should: it opens with Nintendo blips, then transfers the same riff to a slide guitar, which propels the song into a self-consciously mindless chorus about a "summer girl." But Beck's typically dour vocals and the workmanlike intensity with which the song proceeds (and it totally works, to an extent) are at odds with the presumed lightness of intent.
MVP tracks are "Missing," which lets Somber Beck come out to play with some bossa nova strings and glitched textures, and "Hell Yes," which is possibly Beck's first pure dance track and is fluid and joyous and generally quite funky in a restrained way. But Guero suggests that Beck's most interesting work in the future will play towards his seemingly natural proclivity for non-melodramatic melancholy. For now, this may be thought of as the Beck album that didn't change anything, which is kind of sad and a change of pace. Still pretty accomplished though, and well worth a listen for fans. Those looking to be converted should inquire elsewhere.
John Davis, John Davis -I'd love to report that the solo debut of the ex-Superdrag frontman combines hardcore angelical Christianity with jagged hooks that could kick Sufjan Stevens' ass any day, but unfortunately it's mostly just Pretty Good. Opener "I Hear Your Voice" brings on the ersatz-Beach Boys harmonies like nobody's business, and "Salvation" and "Nothing Gets Me Down" have a perfectly respectable stomp to them, but let's face it: I was hoping that the undiluted ferocity which made Superdrag's 1996 Regretfully Yours a minor classic would team up with ridiculously melodramatic lyrics, giving us the musical equivalent in pure, jawdropping sincerity of a Vincent Gallo movie. Instead we get more of Davis' expert songwriting, which is hardly compromised by the Jesus-centric lyrics (they're rote and banal, but in his Superdrag incarnation, Davis' weed-oriented lyrics [e.g., "I could smoke a million bags/you could get me high"] were hardly any better); and though I miss the coiled-up pissiness, Davis does really sound happier. More power to him, I guess. (However, the slow numbers, except "Lay Your Burden Down," are really insufferable. No matter how happy he is, Davis isn't capable of writing a ballad.)