Beck – “Colors”

(photo credit: shop.beck.com)Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Colors” “Dreams”

Beck is a literal cornucopia musician – you never know what the next album is going to sound like. And while there’s plenty of other musicians that do the same, they rarely have such big hits as Beck, and rarely do it so alone. Let’s take his 2005 album “Guero” – there’s 11 other credited musicians, but Beck is credited on 20 instruments, and two of those other musicians are credited with spoken word bits and another is credited on “additional sounds.” This album was made with Greg Kurstin, who is credited on veery song along Beck, and almost no one else shows up. Beck has always straddled the line of total outcast – often improvising lyrics in the studio and blending combinations folk, rock, rap, pop, and electronic genres on a whim – and industry favorite, helping to define and cement alternative music more than almost any other artist. On “Colors,” his thirteenth album, he again takes a hard left-turn, this time embracing the pop spotlight he’s so often avoided.

This is Beck’s first album since 2014’s “Morning Phase,” which won a shocking Album of the Year Grammy (an award so much in Beyonce’s favor that Beck’s speech was barely above surprised mumbling, and featured a tongue-in-cheek Kanye interruption). “Morning Phase” was a soft and blissful record, mistaken for somber. It was a direct follow-up to 2002’s entirely acoustic “Sea Change,” with Beck marking the passage of time and the acceptance he has gained since the disastrous break-up that spawned that classic. But the album’s outlook is much brighter than the music seems. And it makes sense that while Beck was working on that record, he was also developing some of the tracks on this album, even though the albums couldn’t sound more different. The tracks on “Colors” are easily the poppiest thing he’s ever done, at least on a full-album scale. This is a straight pop album, and while it isn’t always effective, it is a lot of fun to hear Beck bounce back in an unexpected way.

“Colors” might be the closest thing to a genre album that Beck’s ever done. Even later albums like “The Information” had diversity amongst tracks. This album has big pop beats throughout and, at times, Beck’s return to the pseudo-rapping of his heyday. Radio pop is the one thing Beck really has left to conquer, so it makes sense that at this stage in his career he would attempt it. By this point, he has nothing left to lose and a solid legacy intact. The title track has a pan flute, “I’m So Free” has rapping, “Wow” has both. And every track on this album is inherently catchy and dancefloor-ready. Even at his weirdest, Beck has always mastered catchiness, but here it isn’t hidden behind slide guitar, or robotic noises, or sitar, or whatever else he had laying around.

The album isn’t without downtime, however. Even though it clocks in at 39 minutes, there’s some fat on the album’s bones. Songs like “No Distraction” and “Up All Night” suffer from bland lyrics and the vague catchiness that plague the entire generation of indie music right now, most of whom are imitating Beck in some way. Although Beck’s music hasn’t always been perfect, he’s never seemed like one who would become a victim of his own creation like he does on “Colors.” Also, a weird disappointment of the album is that the whole piece is centered on the song “Dreams,” a guitar odyssey with one of the most memorable bridge sections in any alternative song. But, the song was released a single over two years ago, and has already gone through the whole radio rise-and-fall process and drifted from many people’s radars (not mine admittedly, I love the track). To center the album around this song seems like a cash-out, like Beck admitting that in the two years since he hasn’t been able to craft up something as good.

Still, the album is a fun and accessible, if not forgettable listen. It stands along with “Sea Change” and “Morning Phase” as the most directly cohesive listens in the Beck discography, therefore also making them the outliers. He successfully hides his years throughout “Colors,” pulling off a batch of songs normally reserved for musicians who fell in love with “Loser” in middle school. It’s another new side of Beck: party Beck. And while I hope party Beck doesn’t stick around very long for fear of getting very tiresome, it is a welcome presence. It also makes me ravenous for whatever Beck will have up his sleeve for his next album. But for now, enjoy all the different shades of Beck’s “Colors.”

-By Andrew McNally

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Fade In: Beck

Beck just won the Grammy for Best Album, upsetting the shoo-in win for “Beyonce.” It’s led to some ‘controversy,’ Bey fans taking to Twitter to ask, “Who in the heck is Beck?” Well, I thought I’d use this opportunity to premiere a new feature of this blog: introductory playlists. It’s an idea I’ve been toying with for a little while, and this seems like the perfect time to start. Every so often, I’ll be publishing 5 or 10 song Spotify playlists with a range of songs from a certain artist. Big hits and deep cuts included, to give the best sense in a short time.

So who is Beck? Well, by this point everyone should know. He’s been releasing music since Beyonce was 12 years old. Though primarily a singer-guitarist, he often plays all the music on his albums, which can be anywhere from one to 15 instruments. His first and biggest hit came in 1994 with “Loser,” and two years later he released the seminal alternative album “Odelay.” His music has taken on a number of different personae. His early music is characterized by a huge blend of alternative, folk, psychedelia and often hip-hop influenced freestyled verses (Beck would record verses on a whim and promise to change them; he never did). A distinct change (no pun intended) came in 2002, when a break-up from a long-time relationship led to the somber, acoustic “Sea Change.” Since then, his music has taken more of an indie approach, regaining much of his early fun but sacrificing less structure. The album he just won a Grammy for, “Morning Phase,” is seen as a more optimistic sequel to “Sea Change,” and is a return to his soft, acoustic side. Want to talk about Beck but don’t know his music? No fear; here’s ten songs to start with.

1) “Loser” – His most well-known song, this song is marked by a depressing chorus, acoustic slide guitar mixed under freestyled, nonsensical lyrics and a vibe that no one else was doing in 1994. Coupled with Radiohead’s “Creep” and the Stone Temple Pilots’ “Creep,” it completes the trifecta of pure 90’s self-loathing.

2) “Nausea” – This 2006 single didn’t have a huge impact, but it’s one of Beck’s most fun songs off of one of his most underappreciated albums. It acts as a throwback to his earlier music – more defined, more practiced, but still acoustic madness that sounds unrehearsed.

3) “Blue Moon” – The lead single off his recent Grammy win, “Morning Phase,” “Blue Moon” is a gorgeous song, surprising by even the most somber of Beck standards. Featuring some beautifully poetic lyrics and a waking acoustic rhythm, it’s one of Beck’s best tracks, and one that showcases a very different side to his music.

4) “The New Pollution” – One of three big hits from his classic “Odelay” album, it’s typical Beck insanity. Catchy, and almost overstuffed with various instruments doing various things (including a nice saxophone bit).

5) “Think I’m in Love” – Another track from 2006’s “The Information,” “Think I’m in Love” is a more straight-forward indie song, an approach he took for the next few years. With an ever-repeating bassline, Beck sings optimistically about a new relationship. But – Beck fans know it’s only a few years removed from “Sea Change,” and it adds an unsettling nature to the song.

6) “E-Pro” – Maybe Beck’s loudest song, it was a roaring comeback in 2005. This is the first track on his “Guero” album, the first album he did after the soft and moody “Sea Change,” and Beck wastes no time announcing his return to his old self. With a beat sampled from the Beastie Boys’ “So What’cha Want,” an 8-bit music video and a heavy guitar line, it’s one of Beck most distinct tracks.

7) “Gamma Ray” – Beck’s 2008 “Modern Guilt” received decidedly mixed reviews, with some people saying he plays it a little too safe and structured. Agree or not, on “Gamma Ray” Beck shows he can pull that off, too. “Gamma Ray” acts as a somewhat direct indie song, and might not sound out of place on a Death Cab For Cutie or Modest Mouse album. It’s an unfortunately forgotten Beck release.

8) “Girl” – The other hit from “Guero” mixes acoustic guitar and game-y chiptune bits into just a simple, fun song. With all of the instruments Beck plays, it’s somehow one of his only songs to feature a solo, on acoustic guitar. Beck has always been one to have great choruses, but “Girl” is one of is most memorable.

9) “Wave” – Almost definitely the most unnerving Beck song, it’s the black sheep of his recent “Morning Phase.” Showing up directly in the middle of the album, it breaks the flow of light, cheery tunes with an utterly brooding lack of rhythm and emotion. It’s just Beck’s ghostly vocals and strings, with no chorus or discernible rhythm. It’s a haunting track and already one of the biggest standouts in his discography.

10) “Where It’s At” – Beck’s other big hit, this one doesn’t get quite the airplay “Loser” always has, but it’s close – and earned Beck his first Grammy. This is the key track from “Odelay,” and it’s crazy Beck at his finest. Every instrument imaginable shows up, it’s catchy but twisting, noisy, rapped, random, and druggy. It’s a little long, sure, but this is what you get when you give Beck two turntables and a microphone.

There you have it, ten Beck songs to introduce you to his music. This specific playlist leans more on hits, future ones will likely incorporate deeper cuts. Now you can properly debate whether or not Beck deserved to win the Best Album Award! (He didn’t, but I still love Beck).

-Andrew McNally

Beck – “Morning Phase”

(Photo Credit: http://www.spin.com)

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Say Goodbye” “Wave”

Since revealing that he would finally be releasing a new album, Beck has been promoting “Morning Phase” as a sequel to his 2002 album “Sea Change.” Beck’s music before that album, and most of it since, has been characterized by boundless energy, an almost unnecessary amount of instruments, samples, and verses that were often made up on the spot and never replaced. “Sea Change,” however, is a moody, acoustic work inspired by the break-up with his girlfriend of nearly a decade. “Morning Phase” is definitely a sequel – but the kind of sequel that tells a new story, not one that just rehashes what was done before.

“Morning Phase” is marked by it’s lack of instruments. “Morning,” the album’s first track (save a brief string intro), is a haunting and almost painfully-timed song, and starts with just an acoustic rhythm. It characterizes the album – it’s slower, calmer and more emotional than any of Beck’s most recent albums. But unlike “Sea Change,” which got too moody and self-indulgent (justifiably), this album has a wide range of emotions. Although the whole album sounds dry and down – it’s deceiving. There are tracks like that, certainly, but “Don’t Let It Go” and “Blackbird Chain” have a subtly popping vibe. It’s hopeful, at least. “Morning Phase” is certainly a thematic sequel to “Sea Change,” in the proper way a sequel should be.

One of the things to analyze on any Beck album is how many instruments are present, and how they’re being used. To say “Morning Phase” is a largely acoustic work does not equate to it being less interesting musically. “Say Goodbye” and “Blue Moon” are marked by unpredictable guitar strumming and rhythms, “Unforgiven” trades the guitar for a warped, piano drone, and finale “Waking Light” suddenly erupts into a full band setting, for the first time on the album. But the shining light is the album’s midpoint. “Wave” is far and away the album’s best song, and already stands up to the best songs in Beck’s discography. The song has no percussion, instead driven by a full string section, composed by Beck’s father, David Campbell. Beck’s voice flies loud and long over the strings, accompanied with almost no other music. It’s a dark song, centered around some of the album’s lighter tracks, and it’s one of the most ambitious songs Beck’s ever done.

While “Sea Change” was a relentlessly dark album, brought on by one sharp event, “Morning Phase” is a more diverse work, and seems to be inspired by years of reflection in the first album’s aftermath. It’s a rare sequel that’s better than the first. It might take a few more listens than most Beck albums to really get into, but it’ll be just as memorable as his better works. Beck fans were probably waiting for another crazy album, and we got the opposite, and it’s every bit as pleasing as hoped for. It’s been a long six years, but Beck leaves no need for an apology.

-By Andrew McNally