Jeff Beck is, famously, one of the greatest guitarists who has ever lived, whose ability to play convincingly and expertly in almost any musical setting is matched only by the degree to which he has personally broken down doors for those styles' popularities. An erratic player and a notoriously finnicky band member, he has never held a group together long enough to achieve any real popular success, and yet this same compulsion to avoid what people expect of him, in the constant search for music that doesn't bore him and send him back under his hotrod coupes (which, it is obvious to anyone, entice him as much or more than any music he's ever played), has made him one of rock's supreme innovators.
His list of credentials is frankly impeccable. Beck has almost singlehandedly invented the template for what would become Zeppelin's variety of very very loud blues rock, and subsequently heavy metal. He made jazz fusion a palatable hitmaker with his Seventies albums "Blow by Blow" and "Wired." He has played with the biggest names in the business and has influenced untolds more. Beck has always released albums that were current and perceptive, in that they reflected trends but were all released while the trend still had something to say. The moment it didn't--for Beck at least--he would go off and do something else.
He stuck with electronica. Perhaps, since Beck has always been an underdog, has never worked well with performers, and has required a high degree of virtuosic rhythm to "get him riled up," so to speak, electronica, with its rather culturally subdued place in popular music, allows him to work out his musical kinks in a mode where he will probably never recieve much attention but which can give him his total musical fulfilment. Beck is a recluse making amazing music by himself, for himself. It may appear selfish to plenty, but the stuff is so engaging for a performer of his age that it almost seems ridiculous to criticize anything. Beck always was destroying conventional notions of what would work and what was marketable, and with his second album in the techno style, he dives deeper into the wealth of possibilities offered him by electronic instruments on 1999's "Who Else!"
Another thing: Beck typically can scarcely be bothered to make records half the time, and everything involved with conventional rock life, such as touring, has irritated him incessantly. And yet he churned this one out after only TWO years, an unpredented and short wait time for him.
The results are mixed. Beck was always a "raawwwk" type of virtuoso given over to wild whammy bar skronk-fests as much as fluid, soaring melodies and solos, and on this album seems to give us a lot of the former. The tone on "You Had it Coming" is very "indie," with crackly production, huge, dark, clanking beats (produced by Andy Wright), and a huge amount of loudness. Beck's more sensitive moments are often the only parts of the album where we can even recognize him: the tones he gets on a number of the songs are full-on wah-drenched tape modulator high-gain fury, a sound approaching dank heavy metal sludge, not at all the typical refinement we've come to expect from him.
It is on these loud, racaous moments where the beats are loudest and Beck is pushed to strive for his best. There's something really vital about Beck, who often subdues himself so much and is his own most anal-retentive judge, letting it loose the way he does on a full half of the short ten-song, thirty-nine minute album. Opener "Earthquake" features a very heavy riff blasting into all sorts of low registers, changing time signatures with each bar, confusing the beat and making way for harmonized whammy bar whistles and machinery-like warbles and clicks over the frantic drums. The straight interlude features a wonderful low register groove that gets the head banging, which breaks down and builds up again for a truly sleazy solo from Beck. To be pounded over the head in such a way by the approaching-sixty guitarist, it's almost totally shocking.
The following numbers don't really let up much on that front, and manage to sneak a lot of interesting invention in as well. "Roy's Toy" makes a rhythm out of the sound of one of Beck's hot-rods starting up in his garage, and the groove that's established moves with a sleazy, menacing bounce that you could easily a bump-n'-grind dance moving to. Beck's layered wah riffs, and his almost completely out-of-control simulation of the car startup in the form of a tape modulator tapping solo, is totally infectious.
The next two numbers actually make use of a vocalist--the highly talented Imogen Heap of Frou Frou. "Dirty Mind" features little more than orgasmic moans and heavy breathing from Heap, in addition to a hilarious "My God" when Beck first embarks on his sleazy riffmaking and another awesome solo (which fit the title perfectly in tone). The following arrangement of the old blues number "Rollin' and Tumblin'" features velvety vocals from Heap and great riffing from Beck.
This kind of stuff serves Beck best on this album without question: album highlight "Loose Cannon," the sixth track (also the longest of the album), is a six-minute orgy of heavy metal fury that barely lets up for anything. A low register bass groove opens the way for dissonant, low-register clanks and whacks from Beck that sound totally devilish and foreboding, proving the point Beck made long ago about his ability to pull off heavy metal ("I sometimes play it when I practice, just to remind myself that I can, and that I can do it much more EVIL than the other guys that are doing it"). The slow burn of Beck's soloing is the highlight of this instrumental track, which builds up with sparse phrasing and eventually dive-bombs out in a spray of noise.
The other stuff are examples of Beck's experimentation with his new medium and his tenderness, which also come off pretty well but are much less invigorating than his other songs. "Rosebud" and "Left Hook" are pretty paltry numbers with a few good riffs here and there, but on the whole the focus of their hooks are not very vital-sounding.
His tender side is explored in full here, though, and here Beck shines again. Fifth track "Nadia" is a "Where Were You-like" example of Beck's incredible mastery of the whammy bar to manipulate one note into a spiraling, incredibly complex series of melodies moving in and out with a sitar-like focus on the semitones in between the conventional notes. The beat behind it is a little unpleasant, though, which is a shame, because the guitar playing on this track is breathtaking in the level of control Beck demonstrates. Closing tracks "Blackbird" and "Suspension" are much more introspective: the former track features Beck using the curved side of a dinner fork to get ultra-high notes to simulate the ambient chirping of birds sampled for the track. "Suspension," on the other hand, is a plaintive, slow, and depressing minor-key piece with beautiful chord work and a very long ambient delay.
The general feel of the album once it's through is that Beck pretty much was cleansing the system. While many individual moments of the songs make me shake my head in admiration, the short length and overall grungey tone of the album gives an overall sense of it that is more along the lines of a hacked-out piece of work. Hence, due to the idiosyncratic (but in my opinion very cool) territory Beck forays into here, this album gets a 3.5: it's too short and frankly not developed enough to really transcend the awesome guitar pyrotechnics into any larger compositional significance. But for people who like this sort of thing and would love to hear a master of the guitar get out some rare aggression, pick this up. It's good stuff.