Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Modern Guilt - Beck

Modern Guilt

DGC Records.

SCQ Rating: 71%

It’s redundant but still stupefying to think that the man who wrote ‘Loser’, a single that everyone loved by an artist everyone prophesized to be a one-hit-wonder, has not only carved himself an impeccable, high profile career, but is currently doing press for his tenth full-length. That says two things: the genius behind ‘Loser’ was no fluke, and secondly, Beck Hanson isn’t one to rest on his laurels.

Since the sample-happy sound he embarked upon with the Dust Brothers on 1996’s Odelay became exploited and old-hat, Beck has been in the enviable position of hiring the best up-and-coming producers to reincarnate alongside. From Nigel Godrich, Tony Hoffer, and now Danger Mouse, each has provided their own trademark flourishes to Beck’s chameleon sound, and in the same way Godrich enriched Sea Change with his own orchestral smears, Danger Mouse punches up Modern Guilt’s percussion like a Gnarls Barkley/Spoon hybrid. And as we’ve become accustomed to realizing, Beck knows what he’s doing. In hiring Danger Mouse, he’s aiming to cut more rhythm and hipness into what is likely his most precisely retro songwriting in years. Retro not only for his eternal love of 60s folk and Motown, but retro in his straight-forward approach to material he would’ve interspliced with genre-defying surprises in the past. Danger Mouse’s inclusion of some nearly Drum-N-Bass inspired beats ends up giving ‘Replica’ its identity, while ‘Walls’ succeeds with some East meets West sampling; a sorrow-filled viola that adds drama to some kicking live drums.

Beyond the Danger Mouse association, Modern Guilt’s nom-du-jour is brevity, famously clocking in at under half the running-time of The Information. This frugal approach feels forced at the close of almost every song, where the tape abruptly stops. It’s truly a take-it-or-leave-it aspect to the record; you’ll adjust to it or long for these songs to explore more symphonic avenues. Even so, critics have jumped into various pools of thought over these thirty-three minutes, claiming Modern Guilt is a political record about our collective, Western guilt toward global turmoil, or simply a heavy-handed party record, where Beck’s distant vocals are illustrative of his indifferent numbness. Both these groups of theorists are listening to only half the album, because it’s all of the above: ‘Gamma Ray’, the fun-loving follow-up to Guero’s ‘E-Pro’ pinpoints environmental politics, but irreverently, with the vocal disdain that makes his records thought-provoking over plain preachy. Modern Guilt plays to these strengths as a whole, and Beck’s strategy is infinitely more pleasing than either side of this critical debate could play out on its own. ‘Chemtrails’ is an impenetrable jam of Beck’s assorted anxieties while ‘Profanity Prayers’, one of the best Danger Mouse/Beck collabs here, comments on a cynicism that Hanson, at 38 years old, has gradually grown into.

Considering this is a Beck album, Danger Mouse has captured a lion’s share of attention, and I have my suspicions why. I’ve long felt that Beck leans pretty hard on his producers – an impression that grows stronger with each release – and to stand by Beck’s talents, he’s never made an ill-advised choice. His vision might be greater than his ability, and that’s no insult – let’s face it, even his stripped-down, folk album had more hands on deck than most prog-rock records employ – but Modern Guilt, his first record that feels unusually absent of gimmickry, remains consistently fresh.

At this halfway point of his career, Beck is entering a frustrating era for a man of his past achievements; that genuinely enjoyable records will be swallowed by the memory of his once-pioneering shadow (that of Odelay, Midnite Vultures). Here, Beck makes no attempt to rehash the past, and the honesty present in closer ‘Volcano’ (“I’ve been drifting on this wave so long, I don’t know if it’s already crashed on the shore,”) offers enough chills to warrant a celebration in honour of his career’s second phase. Diminishing returns? You bet. Worth repeated listens? Absolutely.

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