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!