Out There

Midnite Vultures
(Interscope Records)

Beck Hansen's latest personality is his best joke yet, as this gawky-yet-funky white boy makes himself over as a smooth-talking, hard-partying sex machine, accompanied by the live equivalent of the Dust Brothers' waxploitation soundtracks. Hiding behind gibberish less often than on previous releases, Beck tries to make it clear that he's one of the biggest "Hollywood Freaks" on the scene, a gold-plated playa that "want[s] to know what makes you scream" so he can "be your $20 million fantasy." Or something like that.

His longtime backing band is in tow to escort Beck on his trip through "hot dogs, No-Doz, and hot sex in back rows," including erstwhile R.E.M. drummer Joey Waronker and Tom Waits guitarist Smokey Hormel. In a way, their presence makes Midnite Vultures the perfect combination of 1996's Odelay and last year's Mutations: The band takes a crack at cut-and-paste collages the Dust Brothers constructed on Odelay. Meaning, the horn section is real, and it's really trying to sound like one from the '60s and '70s. Beck pitches in as well, playing guitar, piano, vocoder, synthesizers, bass, and harmonica at various points. But the instrument he's best at playing is his own voice, tweaking it to fit each song. At times, Beck mutates his vocals beyond unrecognizable: Play "Debra" for someone and see whether they're able to recognize the tortured falsetto. He does it so well, it's hard to tell whether the song is a spoof of the let's-get-it-on bedroom-rap genre or a complete commitment to it. Likely, it's both.

More than half of Midnite Vultures' tracks support Beck's newfound strut, from "Mixed Bizness" and "Nicotine & Gravy" to "Get Real Paid" and "Peaches & Cream," all of which could have sprung from Prince's Dirty Mind. Mostly, Midnite Vultures takes the James Brown and the JBs' live act to its logical conclusion. But Beck doesn't stop there: "Hollywood Freaks" one-ups Dr. Dre's Tanqueray-spilling-on-the-tape slickness, and Beck even nails the delivery, falling somewhere between the drunken style of Ol' Dirty Bastard and Snoop Dogg's smoked-out flow. (Of course, with lyrics like, "Hot like a cheetah / Neon mamacita / Pop rockin' beats from Korea," it's all Beck Hansen.) And all of a sudden, a song such as "Beautiful Way" appears out of nowhere, which imagines that one of the Beach Boys is the new Sweetheart of the Rodeo. (More likely, it's Beth Orton, who contributes ba-ba-backups.) That's followed by "Pressure Zone," which comes off like a collaboration by Devo, Joe Jackson, and a team of Foley artists. It just shows that the only thing you can expect from Beck at this point is pure genius.

Zac Crain


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