When Kurt Cobain committed suicide in early 1994, one of the big rock mags, in
an attempt to lift the gravity of the situation, ran a piece that included a
conversation between two staff members. “All they said was that they found a
young white male with blonde hair,” one said to the other. “Hey, who knows: It
could be Beck.”
It was easy to pick on Beck back then. After the breakout success of his debut
single “Loser,” nearly every rock magazine and critic pegged him for
one-hit-wonder status (this writer included). Boy, did he show us. Since then,
he’s easily been the most innovative force in modern rock, going from alt-folk
to cut-and-paste rock to white boy funk to baroque pop. His new album, Guero,
is the first album that sounds like a previous Beck album, but don’t hold that
against him. Its ancestor is Odelay (1996), his watershed moment.
Guero isn’t as good as Odelay, but few albums from the last ten years
are. That it holds its own by comparison is cause for celebration.
Leadoff track “E-Pro” is a modern rock radio programmer’s wet dream, Beck
sampling the Beastie Boys (“So Whatcha Want”), with a corrosive guitar line on
top. Summer anthem in waiting “Girl” is breezy west coast pop, filled with Paul
Simon-esque acoustic guitars, Beach Boys harmonies in the chorus and handclaps
throughout, quite a departure from Sea Change songs like “Lost Cause.”
Continuing the west coast theme is “Scarecrow,” which brings to mind, of all
things, an updated version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown.”
There’s a distinct Latin influence on Guero, which may seem redundant
given its title, but it’s one of the few areas Beck has not delved into much.
“Que Onda Guero” sounds like it was recorded on an east LA street corner, with a
trademark stream of consciousness lyric (“See the vegetable man, in the
vegetable van, with a horn that’s honkin’ like a mariachi band”). A better
example may be “Missing,” which is one of the album’s best. A gentle Spanish
guitar combined with sweeping strings and the album’s finest vocal, “Missing”
positively aches, but it’s a good ache.
And then there’s “Hell Yes,” which Beck fans will either love or hate. The
things to love are its Busta Rhymes-type drum track, a tantalizing harpsichord
sample and old school vocoder chorus. In other words, it’s what was expected of
Beck’s reunion with the Dust Brothers, the duo who also co-produced Odelay.
On the other hand, they’ve all done this before. Those looking for something
revolutionary might find songs like “Hell Yes” lazy, no matter how well executed
Things get a tad dreary on Guero’s back half. “Go It Alone” and “Farewell
Ride” are pushing B-side status, and “Emergency Exit” is saved by its buzz-click
percussion track. Only “Rental Car” stands out above the pack, thanks to its
dark ‘60s pop vibe (think “California Dreamin’”) and the superb female la-la-la
chorus in the bridge.
Guero is what could be called Beck’s comfort food album. It may not
challenge the listener in the way that his material regularly does, but even
Beck fans have their days when all they want is a grilled cheese sandwich. Leave
it to Beck to make that grilled cheese on sourdough bread with tomato. Yum.