Friday, October 06, 2006

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: INFORMATION, PLEASE

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
October 6, 2006


Kitchen-sink troubadour, poetic salad-shooter and rock ’n’ roll puppetmeister Beck is back with a new album that’s delightfully all over the map.

I have to admit, since 2002’s Sea Change — which I found to be a one-note pity-party downer, even though it was loved and praised by virtually everyone else through the hallowed halls of criticdom — I tend to approach Beck albums with a little trepidation.

And yes, I was a little worried when I read that the new one is produced by Nigel Godrich, who had the same position on Sea Change as well as Mutations, another subdued Beck album.

But thankfully, The Information, released this week, is full of Beck’s trademark sonic goofiness, his weird sense of humor, and even some kinda-purdy tunes here and there.

This one might not rank with his best, but it’s a great listen that doesn’t get dull.

As we’ve come to expect with Beck, this album contains fascinating blends of white-kid hip-hop, carnival-freak funk, folk/blues/bossa nova, Plan 9 From Outer Space electronica accompanying surreal, absurdist lyrics. It’s a crazy tour of Beck’s private universe. There are sudden stops — and no seat belts.

“One, two, you know what to do.” That’s the studio chatter that kicks off the first song, a hip-hoppy track called “Elevator Music.” With this song I’m almost tempted to think Beck has been listening to old Gluey Brothers CDs.

One of the most musical and straightforward cuts on The Information is the bouncy “Think I’m in Love.” It’s a little poppy, though not without some nicely insane Beck touches, like the wild bongo percussion during a couple of the instrumental breaks. I’m actually surprised that this wasn’t the one the record company markets as a single. (Instead the company chose “Nausea,” a more hopped-up number.)

One of the prettiest songs here is “New Round,” in which, after an intro of stray banjo thumbs and what sounds like a mock Gregorian chant, Beck experiments with multitracked vocals, even indulging in some self-harmonizing.

Beck’s acoustic guitar is out front on “No Complaints,” while “1000BPM” is a clattering percussion workout that doesn’t play at the speed the title implies.

The title song starts out with relentless, almost industrial drums and an ethereal female voice singing “ahhhhh,” passing through an electronic asteroid belt before slowing down and melting into a cello-driven cool-down that ends in an explosion. This goes directly into a slow synth air called “Movie Theme.”

The album concludes with the menacing if meandering 10-minute suite “The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton.” This little odyssey starts out with a funky bass line — the tank that carries the listener over rugged musical terrain - incomprehensible Beck-rapping, an enticing psychedelic guitar, old-fashioned scratching, and a robotic female voice. About six minutes into the piece, the bottom drops out and you’re floating through the cosmos. The last couple of minutes is a bizarre monologue about space travel. The end is so sudden that the listener feels abandoned.

The main problem with The Information is its lack of truly memorable tunes. There’s certainly no “Loser,” “Devil’s Haircut,” or “Mixed Bizness” (where he tried to “make all the lesbians scream.”) But, as with his best albums, The Information is a treat for ears that makes you keep listening for those funny little moments of Beckian wonder.

Big Beck block: Hear selections from this album and other Beck goodies Sunday night on Terrell’s Sound World. That’s 10 p.m. to midnight on KSFR 90.7 FM, Santa Fe Public Radio. And don’t forget The Santa Fe Opry, Friday night, same time, same station.

Also recommended:

*Good Bread Alley by Carl Hancock Rux. Rux is a multifaceted artist — poet, playwright, and photographer — and an amazing musical force as well.

This album basically is art-damaged blues. Blues for the literate.

Rux saves his best for the first. The title song is a slow (almost plodding), nearly six-minute blues riff, complete with a ghostly trumpet. But while the beat is unhurried and deliberate, Rux sounds like a preacher on fire, almost breathless as he chants and rants about “the magistrates and the apostates” and dreams that “always begin with bruises.” His vocals fade in and out, making the whole track sound alternatively urgent and magnificently spooky.

“Living Room” is based on a mutated, pounding “Gimme Some Lovin’” hook. Again, Rux sounds like a mad prophet who’s broken into recording to get his message out.

A more subtle attack is used on “Thadius Star.” The piano here sounds like “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” while “Behind the Curtain” starts off slow but ebbs and flows with gospel fervor.

While Rux is best-known as a writer, there’s one cover here, the obscure Bill Withers protest song “I Can’t Write Left Handed.” It’s the story of a soldier who lost an arm. “Will you write a letter, a letter to my mother?” he cries. “Tell the tale, tell the tale, tell the tale.”

You’ll find some compelling tales here.

TERRELL'S SOUND WORLD PLAYLIST

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