Beck Hansen


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Mellow Gold, 7/10
One Foot In The Grave, 5/10
Odelay, 7.5/10
Mutations , 6.5/10
Midnite Vultures , 6/10
Sea Change (2002), 6/10
Guero (2005), 5/10
The Information (2007), 5.5/10
Modern Guilt (2008), 5/10
Morning Phase (2014), 4.5/10
Colors (2017), 5/10
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Summary.
Beck Hansen turned eccentricity into stardom and changed the way singer-songwriters sounded and were perceived by the mainstream. With the carefree eclectism of Mellow Gold (1994) Beck invented folk music for the age of hip-hop and proved that stylistic confusion can appeal to the masses. A more organic approach to the fusion of folk, blues, rap, garage-rock and pop enhanced the overall sound of Odelay (1996). The fact that his lyrics were free-form associations, and only vaguely hinting to social reality, was somehow consistent with his superficial approach to musical integration (an operation that other musicians had carried out at a deeper level). Mutations (1998), reminiscent of Radiohead's subtle orchestrations, and Midnite Vultures (1999), a sort of tribute to soul music, rapidly removed the sheen from one of the decade's most over-rated artists.
If English is your first language and you could translate my old Italian text, please contact me.
Beck Hansen e` rapidamente diventato il poster-child della Generazione X, un Bob Dylan della generazione hip-hop che ripete il trucco del maestro: biascicare testi contro l'establishment affabulando secondo lo slang dei giovani e usando metafore sufficientemente criptiche in maniera che chiunque possa leggerci cio` che crede,

Beck era nato a Los Angeles, ma fece la sua gavetta nel movimento "anti-folk" di New York, suonando blues e folk nei locali del Greenwich Village. Nel 1991 torno` alla natia Los Angeles armato di beatbox e tape loop e prese a eseguirsi accompagnando le sue ballate con suoni piu` moderni. L'arguta MTV Makes Me Want To Smoke Crack, che mutuava il gergo dei quattordicenni, invento` il prototipo a cui si sarebbero ispirate tutte le altre, ma fu Loser, che fondeva le culture folk e industriale, a diventare una delle novelty preferite dei college. Steve Threw Up fece seguito sulla stessa falsariga. Alla preistoria di Beck appartengono anche la cassetta Golden Feelings on Sonic Enemy. (1993sep ), il 10" A Western Harvest Field By Moonlight (Fingerpaint, jan 1994) e la cassetta Stereopathetic Soulmanure (Flipside, 1994), che raccoglie esperimenti dei cinque anni precedenti.

Trainato da Loser, l'album Mellow Gold (DGC, mar 1994) sfondo` nelle classifiche e Beck divenne sull'istante uno degli eroi dei giovanissimi.
Cio` che stupisce di Truckdrivin' Neighbors Downstairs e Beercan e` soprattutto la metamorfosi continua a cui si sottopone il cantante, erede dell'acid-folk degli Holy Modal Rounders aggiornato all'era dei rap. Non ignaro dei classici (in Fuckin With My Head sembra di ascoltare Magic Bus degli Who suonata dagli ZZ Top) e capace di escursioni acrobatiche (il raga-blues catatonico di Blackhole), Beck e` maestro nel "decostruire" la musica rock, lasciarla fluttuare in un limbo fra folk (Pay No Mind e Nightmare Hippy Girl, che prendono esempio dal primo Dylan) e musica industriale (Sweet Sunshine e Motherfucker, due ringhi alla Nine Inch Nails), condirla di liriche indecifrabili scritte nel gergo degli adolescenti. Le sue non sono canzoni, sono pezzi di musica in decomposizione.

One Foot In The Grave (K Records, 1995 - Geffen, 2009), registrato prima che Beck diventasse una star, e` invece un'opera suonata in chiave minore con l'aiuto di pochi amici che va interpretata come un omaggio di Beck alle sue radici e come un precoce atto di catarsi. Le canzoni sono per lo piu` improvvisate in studio, strimpellate alla chitarra con il piglio dell'eccentrico solitario: il tono abulico di I Get Lonesome e` quello di Syd Barrett, anche se Asshole e` una storiella degna di Jonathan Richman (peraltro mai cosi` anemico) e Painted Eyelids intona la cadenza del Neil Young di Harvest e Hollow Log e` fa venire in mente i Pink Floyd piu` pastorali. L'eclettismo, che era stato un po' la chiave di volta del successo, riemerge soltanto nelle armonie ipnotiche di Forcefiled e nel blues distorto alla Beefheart di Ziplock Bag.

Beck Hansen si presenta al terzo appuntamento, Odelay (DGC, 1996), con uno stile piu` vario e maturo, anche per effetto della produzione dei Dust Brothers. E` questo in effetti l'album in cui il suo talento viene a galla. Gli album precedenti erano monocromatici, e probabilmente condizionati dal fatto di dover imporre una personalita` in un mercato inflazionato di cantautori. Questa volta Beck si puo` permettere di inseguire tutte le tracce, di provare tutte le corde del suo strumento creativo. Il menestrello rap di Loser riprende il suo sermone disincantato in Hotwax (e con tanto di armonica blues), e, con piu` grinta, in Novacane. Un altro menestrello, quello folk, si rilassa nella ballad Jack-Ass, nello shuffle alla Sheryl Crow di Lord Only Knows e nel lungo conclusivo sogno acustico di folk Ramshackle.
La produzione e` lucida e brillante. Le canzoni, sotto la melodia di Beck, sono eleganti collage di suoni "trovati". New Pollution scimmiotta i motivetti pop dell'era hippie, ma li trafigge con un assolo di tromba jazz, seguito a sua volta da un assolo di organo soul. Where It's All decostruisce e ricostruisce con minuzia certosina stereotipi del funk e dell'hip-hop. Ma Beck ha anche voglie di restauratore, come dimostrano l'arrangiamento da garage-rock degli anni '60 di Devil's Haircut (syncopated loud beat a` la drum'n'bass, ecstatic refrain a` la hippies, loud dissonant guitar riff a` la Breeders), o le profusioni raga alla George Harrison di Derelict, o ancora la parodia country-rock di Sissyneck. I generi originali vengono naturalmente svuotati della loro identita` e riempiti di quel divagare armonico che e` il marchio di fabbrica di Beck. E` questo il disco con cui Beck Hansen legittima il suo carisma di cantautore piu` rappresentativo degli anni '90, quando lo stile scapestrato dei rap si sposa a quello aulico della ballata folk.

Beck, dovendo pubblicare un album per ragioni contrattuali, decide di assemblare una raccolta di canzoni rimaste nel cassetto per anni. Mutations (DGC, 1998) e` pertanto un Beck di serie B, per quanto magistralmente arrangiato dal produttore Nigel Godrich (in maniera quasi orchestrale, da ricordare Van Dyke Parks). Cold Brains presenta di nuovo il Neil Young di Harvest, ma questa volta circondato da una giostra di effetti psichedelici. Beck canta la filastrocca di Lazy Flies nel tono trasognato di Syd Barrett in un tripudio di pianola, viola, violoncello, sitar, tamburelli e cosi` via. Le delicate melodie folk di We Live Again e Dead Melodies resuscitano l'era di Kinks e Donovan.
Lo stile eclettico e il piglio eterodosso sono quelli dei migliori Julian Cope e Smog, ma a salvare il disco sono gli arrangiamenti. Quando vengono a mancare quelli, restano soltanto episodi molto minori come il country-rock di Canceled Check e Bottle Of Blues, o il rhythm and blues da cocktail lounge di O Maria e Sing It Again, due pallide imitazioni di Tom Waits. E la trovata del singolo Tropicalia e` un po' miseranda.

(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

Without the Dust Brothers, Beck Hansen is a far less creative arranger. Midnite Vultures (Geffen, 1999) is an album of old-fashioned soul music, with no samples and some orchestra. Odelay (DGC, 1996) was the quintessential 1990s, whereas Vultures is 1970s revivalism. The core of the album is soul music, and soul music that is sung with a sensual, decadent falsetto in Debra and Peaches And Cream (although both sound like parodies, the former massively enveloped in guitar, keyboards, strings and choirs, the latter played like Captain Beefheart's Magic Band would). The sense of revival gets even stronger with the upbeat rave-up of Sexx Laws, horns-heavy and misled into a country & western coda. But the album is, above all, a meeting point, a very busy intersection where one can spot the shadows and the echoes of Kraftwerk (Get Real Paid), Sly Stone and B52's (Mixed Bizness), lazy country harmonies (Beautiful Way), Merseybeat (Pressure Zone), etc. Funk and rap are only the cherries on the pie. The pie is made of a different substance, one that does not belong to this planet.
The new Beck is a galactic comet that picks up and spreads cosmic debris. The demented funk singalong Nicotine & Gravy and the spastic acid-rock ballad Broken Train, overflow with sonic effets. The outcome of Beck's metamorphosis is still amorphous, but occasionally one can get a glimpse of the future to come: Milk & Honey coins a genre of futuristic hard-rock ballad, shaken by brutal riffs and syncopated drumming, pierced by electronic noises and zombie-fied by an android mechanized beat.
Beck is an illusion, the illusion of a modern-day Todd Rundgren penning post-modern ditties with the They Might Be Giants as a backing band. The truth is that he mostly sounds like the Ween playing material written by professional songwriters of the old Brill Building, or a mediocre bourgeois songwriter with intellectual pretenses (think John Lennon), or a black crooner for the discos (think a cross between Barry White, Marvin Gaye and Prince), or an easy-listening ripoff of black music (think Steely Dan), or the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street played at half the speed. One could claim all of these and more. Well, this is Beck's forte: his art of appropriation is a veritable "remixing" of popular styles. And so it is possible that the least original of his albums is also his most personal.

As well executed as it is, this is nonetheless a transitional work, and an ego-boosting one.

Sea Change (DGC, 2002) marks a new beginning for Beck, this time in the vein of West Coast's country-rock of the 1970s. After inventing folk music for the age of hip-hop, Beck had lost a sense of his mission in life. Many of these songs, like the ones on the previous two albums, are fairly predictable (End of the Day, Already Dead, Lost Cause, Guess I'm Doing Fine) but elsewhere Beck uses elegant arrangements (especially the strings arrangements by his father, David Campbell) to enhance the emotion hidden in the lyrics and to downplay the simplicity of his delivery (Lost Cause, Sunday Sun, The Golden Age, Paper Tiger, Lonesome Tears). A newly-found passion for "atmosphere" (Little One, Round the Bend, Side of the Road) completes the two-pronged attack to his own traditional style. In the end, this sounds like a return to Mutations but drained of the casual enthusiasm of youth.

After the mediocre Sea Change, Beck decided to return to his roots with Guero (Geffen, 2005), except that his fusion of folk and hip-hop music is now outdated (and rappers are doing it better than folksingers). A lot of this album is pure dejavu (Earthquake Weather, Emergency Exit, etc etc). And when it is not a mere photocopy of his former selves, it hardly works: his multiple takes on funk music in Que Onda Guero, Hell Yeah and Girl sound amateurish and indecisive, not original. The vibrant E-Pro is a welcome change of pace, as is the tribal Black Tambourine, but better songs can be found on dozens of albums that came out in the same month.

Guerolito (Interscope, 2006) is an album of remixes.

While most of The Information (2007), three years in the making, is disposable, the good moments are indeed good: Think I'm in Love and Cell Phone's Dead are pop tunes that twist and morph, and that quote all sorts of musical styles (including his own hip-hop past) while pinned to a depressing sociopolitical concept. The ten-minute three-movement suite The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton is, instead, relatively uneventful: blending and mixing random ideas does not equate with being eclectic and creative, although its self-referential nature might qualify it as a manual on how to write a Beck song. The album does not sound like the work of an inspired artist but like the routine of an experienced practitioner who has a lot of intelligent comments to make but, perhaps, has never truly been a musician. The producer, Nigel Godrich, is probably responsible for the most exciting turns of the album.

Modern Guilt (DGC, 2008) employed producer Danger Mouse to veer towards a poppier sound (Orphans, Modern Guilt). A couple of songs (Chemtrails and Replica) displayed creative combinations of sounds, but mostly this sounded like a failed artist looking for a way to survive in an ever more competitive record industry.

After a long hiatus due to a spinal injury, Morning Phase (Capitol, 2014) mainly showed Beck's skills as a producer. The songs are worth very little: decent folk-rock revival harking back to the "West-Coast sound" (i.e., relaxed and country-ish sound) of the California singer-songwriters and bands of the 1970s, such as Eagles and latter-day Byrds. In fact, one is reminded of David Crosby (in the mildly psychedelic Morning) and Roger McGuinn (in the catchier and faster Heart Is A Drum). He has become a fan of stereotypical classics such as Simon & Garfunkel's Sound of Silence (Turn Away) and Neil Young's Harvest (Country Down). The elegant chamber arrangements do stand out, but the songs are terribly trivial, substandard, obsolete, dejavu. The one moment that stands out (that doesn't fall into ridiculous irrelevance) is the way the music manages to be simultaneously catatonic and symphonic in Wave.

Colors (Capitol, 2017), a collaboration with producer Greg Kurstin, was his most mainstream album yet, the album of a copycat trying to climb the sales charts with imitations of other people's hits. The album in fact collects the previous singles Dreams (2015), produced by Greg Kurstin (producer of pop stars such as Adele, Lily Allen, Sia, Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry), Wow (2016) and Up All Night (2016), all of them infamous cases of shameless pop. The album continues in that vein (a general dejavu of George Michael-era dance-pop) with the slightly better Colors, energized by clapping and Peruvian ocarina. His 1980s fixation reaches a comic climax with No Distraction, that mimics the Police's Message in a Bottle. The songs to save are the two that don't fit in the pattern of the others. The charging power-pop of Iím So Free is reminiscent of the Smithereens with big guitars stealing the show before it slides into girl-group sounds of the Sixties. Dear Life is a mellow ditty that George Harrison could have sung on the Beatles' White Album.

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