Review: Beck’s New Track “Saw Lightning” From the Upcoming ‘Hyperspace’

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Many people are often surprised that I like Beck. Frankly, I’ve always liked Beck. On the surface, he doesn’t really fit the blues/blues rock template that typically informs most of the rock and roll I listen to. But if you listen to a lot of his music, you’ll often hear some beautiful, bluesy slide guitar. A guitar player I knew once told me that “Loser” has the same guitar riff as the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider,” but you can’t always trust guitar players and the guy who told me that was famously unstable…it was probably all those jazz cigarettes, but I digress. Beck’s new track, co-produced by Pharrell of all people, “Saw Lightning” is no exception with respect to a bluesy, acoustic guitar riff. Apparently he’s got a new album coming, Hyperspace, that has yet to get a release date.

Beck (aka Beck Hansen), appeared in 1994, in the heart of the grunge era with his debut album Mellow Gold. While that album has always been hailed as a masterpiece, it never caught my ear. The first single “Loser” certainly did, but it caught everybody’s ear. I remember thinking that Beck was going to be one of those 1-hit wonders and we’d be listening to “Loser” in 20 years and Beck would be working in a record store somewhere in SoCal, cashing in on his distant celebrity with surfer chicks, like you do. Beck certainly surprised all of us. If you look at his early career it’s not unlike the Beastie Boys – not sonically, of course. The Beastie’s appeared in the middle 80s and we all thought “Fight For Your Right To Party” was a great party song. Nobody expected the drunken slobs on the video to do anything else of substance. They went away for 3 years, which was lifetime back then for a recording artist, and came back with the genius of Paul’s Boutique. Nobody expected that from the Beasties. Beck pulled a similar move after Mellow Gold. He went away for 2 years and then returned with arguably, his masterpiece Odelay which again, nobody expected.

Actually Beck released the all acoustic album, One Foot In The Grave, rather quickly after Mellow Gold (it had been recorded prior) so Beck didn’t disappear completely after his smash debut. One Foot In the Grave established what I like to call the dichotomy of Beck’s career. One side is the folky, acoustic strummer… although there’s plenty of blues in his folk… and then the other side of Beck, his electronic, upbeat side. For the latter, Beck typically spills seemingly nonsensical lyrics, dropping rhymes faster than an adolescent Dylan or not unlike Springsteen circa Greetings From Asbury Park. He kept bouncing back and forth between those styles even after Odelay, when he released the acoustic Mutations. Its been mostly like that ever since. Mutations begat the upbeat Midnight Vultures which begat the melancholy, acoustic Sea Change. 

On a video shoot for the overlooked gem of an album, Modern Guilt, Beck sustained a horrible back injury. No one was sure he’d ever record again. It took him six years between that album and his follow up, the brilliant acoustic Morning/Phase in 2014. Still people wondered if we’d ever hear from Beck’s upbeat, wise-cracking, rhyme dropping side ever again. Finally, he returned to that more upbeat sound on the 2017 album Colors. We weren’t too crazy about that album here at B&V so naturally it won a Grammy. I did really like all the singles he released in the run up to the album, “Wow,” “Dear Life,” and “Dreams.” Those were three of his all time best tracks. The album was just too glossy and poppy for me LP Review: Beck, ‘Colors,’ An Uneven, Disappointing Foray Into Sugar Sweet, Pure Pop. I got to see Beck open for U2 in support of Colors and liked it… I would have preferred he played longer… but that’s me.

Once again, Beck has dropped a great single as a precursor for an album. I don’t know what Hyperspace is going to be like… I’m a tad wary after Colors, but this first single, “Saw Lightning” is vintage Beck. I mentioned on an earlier post, I was in Florida with a couple who are the biggest blues fans I know. We drove from Key West to Miami, and “Saw Lightning” played several times… and even Kerry, the wife said, “God, I like this song, that guitar!” Indeed!

One of the first things you hear is a razor wire, slide acoustic guitar riff that continues through the entire track. The percussion is a cacophonous cascade of beats. The song picks up steam as it goes along. I love the bass-line here. The title conjures the old Howlin Wolf song “Smokestack Lightning,” not that they’re similar, that’s just how my brain is wired. The track has a great bridge, “Lord, won’t you take me and lead me into the light.” I just love Beck’s vocals. The lyrics are mostly Beck delivering what sounds like ominous news in an upbeat fashion. I really recommend this track to anybody who digs Beck, it’s going to be listed amongst his greatest tracks.

In related Beck news, he shows up on the great new track by Cage The Elephant, “Night Running.” I’ll take all the Beck I can get. I wouldn’t call it a duet, but Beck is more than harmony or back up vocalist here. He sings “we running” as a counter vocal to the lead vocalist of Cage. It’s a bit more pop than I usually get into, but it’s catchy as Hell. Not coincidentally Beck, Cage The Elephant and Spoon are touring together this summer, what a triple bill, and I’ll be sitting in the audience reporting on the rock and roll from Denver.

I urge everybody to check out both of these tracks. I’m going to have to cross my fingers for Beck’s new album, whenever it comes out. For now enjoy “Saw Lightning” and check out “Night Running,” you’ll thank me later!

Cheers!

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LP Review: Beck, ‘Colors,’ An Uneven, Disappointing Foray Into Sugar Sweet, Pure Pop

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I so wanted to love this album. It’s been such a long time since Beck has put out an “upbeat” record, it felt like ‘Colors’ was long overdue…

Beck’s career started with the great 90’s “slacker” anthem “Loser.” That song was everywhere and we all loved it… “I’m a loser baby, why don’t you kill me.” It seemed to capture the mid 90’s, grunge zeitgeist in one, funny, word-packed song. His wordplay on that song almost had me convinced he was Bob Dylan’s illegitimate son. I thought, this song is funny, but this is obviously a one-hit wonder. We’ll never hear from this Beck kid again… Like most people, I didn’t take the time to check out the fabulous album that “Loser” came from, ‘Mellow Gold.’

In my mind Beck’s career seemed a lot like the Beastie Boys. The Beastie’s had captured the spirit of the mid-80s with their party anthem “Fight For Your Right (to Party)” in much the same way as Beck in the 90s. We all thought the Beasties were one-hit wonders as well. No one ever expected them to disappear for three years and return with their masterpiece, 1989’s ‘Paul’s Boutique.’ It appears there was a lot more to these Beastie Boys than we realized. And in much the same way, no one expected Beck to return in 1996 with his masterpiece, ‘Odelay.’ It was only then that many of us turned back to ‘Mellow Gold’ and thought maybe we should have seen it coming. It seems there was more to this Beck character than we realized…Isn’t it funny how life is really a bunch of a repeatable patterns… not to go all Zen on you.

While ‘Odelay’ set the template for much of what followed from Beck, dark, alternative rock dressed up with some pop flourishes and samples, Beck did take a left turn on his follow-up record, ‘Mutations.’ It would have been easy for Beck to follow-up ‘Odelay’ with ‘Odelay 2 – Son of Odelay’ or ‘Odelay, the Sequel.’ If you know what I mean… anyway, ‘Mutations’ was an acoustic-based album full of dark meditations. I especially liked “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” and “Cold Brains.” In many ways, ‘Mutations’ set up Beck’s parallel career. He’d come out with a noisy album or two but then retreat to his acoustic side much in the same way that Neil Young used to do.

‘Mutations’ was followed by Beck’s funky, porn-soundtrack-like ‘Midnight Vultures.’ I wasn’t as big a fan of that one, but it veered more toward’s Beck’s ‘Odelay’ sound. He followed ‘Midnight Vultures’ with the sensational acoustic album, ‘Sea Change.’ Inspired by the break-up of a long relationship, ‘Sea Change’ was Beck at his most emotionally naked. As a man who is no stranger to that feeling, I really responded to ‘Sea Change.’ True to form, after ‘Sea Change’ Beck veered back to his noisier side. He released a series of records that were all uniformly strong. My pick of the litter is ‘Guero.’

In 2008 Beck released the oft-overlooked ‘Modern Guilt.’ It was produced by the infamous Danger Mouse and while it was as strong as anything he’d put out since ‘Sea Change’ it didn’t really have a hit single that took off. It remains, for me, one of his stronger albums. It’s very alternative rock, but with anything Danger Mouse, there are pop-flourishes. The lyrics tend toward the darker side of Beck’s experience. “Orphans,” and the title track really stuck out for me… It was while filming a video for one of the singles that Beck hurt is back. Apparently it was pretty serious. It was thought that he would never be able to perform again.

Hence, we didn’t hear from Beck again until 2014 when he returned, thankfully healed, with another masterful, acoustic album, ‘Morning Phase.’ While the Rock Chick is always more drawn to his noisier stuff, she put ‘Morning Phase’ into high rotation without any prodding from me. I was glad to see him back but I had to wonder… would Beck ever really rock out again. It was two years ago in 2015 that Beck put out “Dreams,” which I thought was a one-off single, but it’s actually on ‘Colors.’ Over a year and a half ago, Beck put out what I thought would be a first single to an upcoming album, which I guess it eventually became, “Wow.” (Reviewed on B&V previously, Beck’s New Single, “Wow”…”Giddy Up, Giddy Up”), making this the slowest album roll out since The Pretenders released the first single from ‘Learning to Crawl’ in 1982 and didn’t release the album until January of 1984, unheard of back then. “Wow” was a vintage Beck song. It’s catchy, it has pop-flourishes but at it’s heart lies an alternative rock song. But after it came out… we just had to wait. And wait. And wait. Until finally this last week Beck released the new album, ‘Colors.’ He did tease the record with the release of a couple more songs also reviewed here, Beck: Two New Songs, “Dear Life,” “Up All Night,” And Finally, New LP ‘Colors’ Slated For Oct.

‘Colors’ was produced by the now ubiquitous Greg Kurstin who’s work on Liam Gallagher’s first solo album was recently reviewed on B&V. Kurstin is probably more well known for working with Adele….which probably should have been a sign of things to come. I heard Beck interviewed on SiriusXM radio and he said while playing live he realized that much of his music is rather mellow. He went into the studio with the conscious plan to make an “upbeat” record that would get people moving when he played live. I’m guessing that the songs on ‘Colors’ will have that desired reaction.

All of that said, however, Beck and Kurstin have altered Beck’s formula here. Rather than alt-rock songs with pop flourishes, this is pop music with alt-rock flourishes. I was stunned at how shallow this record is. “No Distractions” sounds like it could have come from Katy Perry. He sings the words, “Boogie to the left, boogie to the right.” My God man, where is the guy who wrote “Baby, you’re a lost cause?” The song “I’m So Free” is probably the worst thing I’ve heard Beck put out. I typically try to stay as positive as I can, there’s enough negativity in the world, but “I’m So Free” is just unlistenable. He pronounces the word “free” like my daughter’s friends, “fruh.” The horror, the horror.

“Up All Night” was a song that I liked on first listen. But after a few spins I find myself skipping it. It sounds like something Weeknd recorded. So much of this record passes by, sounding the same, with little to no lyrical content to attach to. “Colors,” “Seventh Heaven,” and “Square One” are all nice, tight, danceable pop tunes. I’m just not a fan of nice, tight, danceable pop tunes, or pop tunes of any kind.

There are some positives. I still love the track, “Wow.” All the stuff that he released early, “Dreams,” and the great, Beatlesque “Dear Life” are great tunes. There is one ballad on the album, “Fix Me,” that is more in tradition with what I’d expect from Beck. It’s not that I would begrudge any artist the freedom to try different things, wear different hats, but this album left me cold. The Rock Chick gave it one listen and was done with it and she’s as big a Beck fan as I am. I hate to say it, but Beck just missed the mark here. Although, I’m sure he’ll see some dancing at his next show… I just won’t be there.

Sadly, I can’t recommend this album. However, I would recommend checking out the select tracks mentioned above and in previous reviews… If life is a set of patterns, I look for a stunning acoustic record up next from Beck… and I’d be OK with that…

Cheers!

 

 

 

Beck: Two New Songs, “Dear Life,” “Up All Night,” And Finally, New LP ‘Colors’ Slated For Oct

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Well at last, Beck has finally announced a new LP, ‘Colors’ for October release. In addition, I was thrilled to see he’s released two new songs, “Dear Life,” and “Up All Night” in advance of the new album. I don’t know why it seems so long since Beck has released an album. It was only three years ago, in 2014, when Beck put out the superb ‘Morning Phase,’ an acoustic strummer of an album that was a companion piece to 2002’s melancholy ‘Sea Change.’ But before that, it was all the way back in 2008 when Beck last put out an album, the overlooked, Danger Mouse-produced ‘Modern Guilt.’ When an artist only puts out a couple of albums over the span of almost a decade, it just seems like a long time has passed.

Of course, Beck released the fun single, “Wow” over a year ago, reviewed on B&V previously (Beck’s New Single, “Wow”…”Giddy Up, Giddy Up”). I guess when I heard “Wow” I figured an album was imminent and the wait seemed longer than it really was. If I’m splitting hairs here, Beck released the song “Dreams” months before “Wow” came out, so it really has been a long time. Both of those tunes will appear on the upcoming ‘Colors’ LP so it could be argued this is the slowest album roll-out since the Pretenders ‘Learning to Crawl,’ but back then several members of the band died during that time period.

I’ve always loved Beck. I’ve always thought of him as the unholy marriage of Bob Dylan and the Beastie Boys. He has an acoustic, almost acoustic-blues, side that he marries in his best work with noisy samples and changes of tempo Metallica would envy. He seamlessly synthesizes the old with the new. I’ve been on his bandwagon since the seminal 90s slacker anthem “Loser” was released. And while his last album, ‘Morning Phase’ was more hushed and acoustic, I’m thrilled to see Beck get back to his fun, noisy side.

These two new tracks are much in keeping with the previously released singles, “Wow” and “Dreams” that were released, as mentioned, over a year ago. These are full on band songs with varied instruments and sounds. A piano line that could have been cribbed form ‘The White Album’ starts off the great “Dear Life.” I heard something familiar in this song, and I thought it was a slight melancholy that Beck brings to his singing sometimes, but I was wrong. This track is, dare I say it, “Beatle-esque.” It’s got a great little guitar riff and a powerful beat. I defy you not to tap your foot along as this tune chugs along. I don’t know if it’s the fact I just sat through a ClassicAlbumSunday featuring ‘Sgt Pepper’ that’s clouding my hearing on this, but “Dear Life” sounds heavily influenced by that trip-y musical era. I love the stuttered vocals on the bridge. It’s the perfect opening track for an album that sounds like it’ll be as musically varied as anything Beck has done since ‘Guero’ at least and possibly since ‘Odelay.’ This is real headphones music…

“Up All Night,” the second track he’s put out since announcing the album is a pure pop confection of a song. I can’t stop moving around when I listen to this song, and I don’t dance. It’s got a great beat. I have to admit this could have been a real contestant for “song of the summer” had he not waited to release this song until September. It’s pure up-beat groove. “I just want to stay up all night with you…” Who hasn’t felt that way. This song is as hooky as hell. It’s a melody that stays with you. It’s much of a piece with the previously released “Dreams.” There is something familiar about this track as well, so I don’t know if Beck has released it previously as a single or perhaps as part of a soundtrack… The Rock Chick suspects the latter. It’s just such a seminal melody, perhaps both of us are wrong.

I think this is going to be a great return to form album for Beck. I’ve liked every tune that I’ve heard from ‘Colors’ so far. Play it loud and groove like summer never ends folks!

Cheers!

 

Beck’s New Single, “Wow”…”Giddy Up, Giddy Up”

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I’ve always loved Beck. When I heard his first single, “Loser,” I couldn’t stop laughing. It was a goofy song, but the rhymes rolled off his tongue like Dylan on “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” I had always assumed he’d be a one-hit wonder. I did like his song “Asshole,” that Tom Petty covered, but I thought I was alone on that one, well alone with Tom Petty anyway. It probably wasn’t until “Odelay” that I fully got on the bandwagon. That album is pure genius. There are layers and layers of sound, vocals and styles on that record. It took me a while to even decipher it. But at it’s core is a great sense of humor.

I soon discovered there were two sides of Beck. The “Odelay” or “Midnight Vultures” Beck, with groovy synths and loud dance-able beats and the other acoustic, mellow Beck. I really like both. I would actually say that acoustic/mellow Beck made me like funky/loud Beck even more. It gave him a bit of gravitas. His last full length album, “Morning Phase” came after a six year absence from Beck due to a serious back injury suffered at a video shoot. I loved “Morning Phase,” it was mellow but certainly not melancholy like say, “Sea Change.” I thought perhaps after the back injury, mellow/acoustic Beck was all that remained.

Then about a year ago (?) he released the upbeat, funky “Dreams” which is just a fantastic song. I was a little bummed to hear it in a car commercial the other day but that doesn’t diminish how much I like “Dreams.” It’s probably one of the best singles he’s done. I wondered, does this mean another album might be in the works? Could funky, synth, upbeat Beck return for a full length record? And then… nothing. All he released was that one single. Again, I thought perhaps “Dreams” was an aberration and funky Beck was truly gone.

Fast forward to yesterday when Beck surprised us with his new funky, single “Wow.” And I must admit, “wow” is exactly what I thought when I heard it. It announces it’s intention in the first spoken words, “Giddy up, giddy up.” Giddy up indeed, Beck. It has all his trademarks: spoken word, falsetto backing vocals, crazy rhymes, beats and synths. This isn’t classic rock, this is a music in it’s own genre. The Rock Chick was giddy when she first heard him come back with a song as strong as “Dreams.” I’m not sure I agree that this song is as strong as “Dreams” but when the Rock Chick is grooving, you let roll.

This one is a must-have for Beck fans. I read online he has a whole album in the can and might actually have half a second one done. After that six year gap, it’s nice to have funky/loud Beck back again!

Wow! Cheers!