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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Parquet Courts – “Sunbathing Animal”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “She’s Rolling” “Sunbathing Animal”

The men of Parquet Courts are growing older, but just in the sense that we all are. “Sunbathing Animal,” the second accessible full-length and third release from the band in barely a year and a half, shows hints at maturity. It’s a reluctant maturity, one of attempts at denial but eventual acceptance. The band, as they did on last year’s “Tally All the Things You Broke” EP, open up to more influences and more ideas. The always-terrific “Light Up Gold” mixed garage-rock and country influences, but was filled with a boundless youthful energy that is roped in and controlled here.

Parquet Courts seem to know that they can’t just keep playing hybrid country-punk forever. “Stoned and Starving” is one of the best songs in years, but at 5:12, it’s the only song on “Light Up Gold” that’s over 3:30. Of the 13 songs on “Sunbathing Animal,” five break that threshold, with two more only seconds away. The band is, in one way, slowing things down and introducing some more developed songwriting. “Bodies Made Of” starts the album on a deceiving, medium tempo. “Dear Ramona” follows a narrative and shows more mature songwriting. “She’s Rolling” goes past six minutes, and “Instant Disassembly” past seven, with the latter being a pseudo-ballad and the former ending in crazy, layered harmonicas.

But in another way, they’re not slowing things down at all. They’re still a punk band, and “Ducking & Dodging” shows its love for 8ths and 16ths. Its “vocals over a drum and soft guitar line” is one of the most garage-y rhythms in years. The title track provides a volume and energy blast after the slow-burning “She’s Rolling.” And there’s musical interludes, just as on “Light Up Gold.” “Vienna II” and “Up All Night” provide brief break-ups throughout the album. “Sunbathing Animal” is more drawn-out, and more expansive, but it packs as many punches as their previous works.

“Sunbathing Animal” pairs nicely with “Light Up Gold,” as a band exploring the width of their own sound. “Sunbathing Animal” is no better or worse than “Light Up Gold,” and it doesn’t immediately demand any comparisons. It’s a lot more structured, and the band is more in control of their energy. It’s still very youthful and tongue-in-cheek, still fun but serious. “Sunbathing Animal” is a distinctly different album for the band, but it’s still definitively Parquet Courts. And that should be enough of a reason alone to pick the album up.

If you like this, try: together PANGEA’s “Badillac,” a less exciting (but still agreeable) example of a garage-punk band expanding.

-By Andrew McNally