Beck, the Flaming Lips

If it's a surprise that Beck follows his least necessary album (1999's Midnite Vultures, where he tried so hard to be Prince he seemed on the verge of ditching his name in favor of a symbol) with his most essential disc (September's Sea Change), it shouldn't be. After all, that's what he does best; too often, his career has been an exercise in confounding expectations rather than making music. He chased the sample-savvy success of 1996's Odelay with the live-band languor of 1998's Mutations, and that gave way to Midnite Vultures, which pretty much amounted to a full hour of watching Beck do The Robot; white guys are never quite so white as when they try to be black. (What up, Tommy Lee!) That said, Sea Change is the real deal or, at least, it feels that way. It feels something, and that's a welcome change; there's an actual heartbeat among the carefully strummed guitars and sympathetic strings (arranged and conducted by Beck's pop, David Campbell). For once, for now, he's saying what he means, crying "Lonesome Tears" over a "Lost Cause," and so on. Be fun to see what Wayne Coyne's Flaming Lips (who open the show with their own brand of orchestrated heartbreak, then back up Beck during his set) do with the songs. Well, it won't be fun, but still.

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