By Jeremy Hallock
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You can bestow the title of History's Greatest Rock Guitarist upon Jeff Beck, and few could provide a convincing argument to the contrary. He produces his wizardry "naturally"--merely using a modified Stratocaster and Marshall JCM 2000. Which means he could sit down with your very own guitar and be just as astounding as with his own equipment; his gift is all in the head, hands and heart. So why he continues to hide his playing within a blanket of electronica is a mystery to longtime followers. And Beck still has his followers, generations of guitarists who regard him as Ax Murderer Number One.
Beck always goes for the throat. Hence, he hits his greatest one-note feedback yet at the crescendo of "Rollin' and Tumblin'," the standout track on his latest Epic release, You Had It Coming. It is a rising scream laden with so many magical overtones that it soars to Homeric heights and yes, inspires a bit of hyperbole. This roar of feedback is 2001's update on the guitarist's consistent forays into uncharted feedback that hearken back to "Ain't Superstitious" in 1968.
You Had It Coming is Beck's follow-up to 1999's Who Else!, his first digital-age recordings. Eccentric edits and stuttering cacophonies of sound that come to crashing digital silences. Like Tom Waits, Beck seems to be a man drained of ideas grasping for new inspiration that isn't quite there. In Beck's case, it happens to be electronic innovation just for innovation's sake. Though trying to stay ahead of the times, the result sounds old and sterile, much like his empty fuzak albums of the '80s. The guitar playing, nevertheless, remains stellar, even when obscured behind a bed of house music. A second highlight on this otherwise numbing exercise in electronic sludge-funk is "Nadia." Composed by Indian musician (dot, not feather) Nitin Sawhney--whom Beck considers "a genius, like an Indian Stevie Wonder"--Beck has said that he almost crashed his car upon first hearing this composition on his stereo. While it's unlikely the track will affect your own driving, it still demonstrates a beautiful right-handed slide technique Beck has mastered. It's a perfect approximation of Indian raga-style riffing, albeit on a Stratocaster.
Humans often marvel at birdsong, and no one seems to have duplicated the unique musicianship. Though he's covered Lennon/McCartney songs since Blow By Blow, Beck's "Blackbird" is not the one by Paul. Instead, it is a duet with a feathered friend (uncredited, naturally) that also features an incredible slide technique approximating birdsong, if not in meter, at least in spirit. Great idea. In fact, it's probably the best idea he's had in a long, long time. Stick to the guitar, Jeffrey.