Sun Grade: B --
Beck seemingly sets out to confound expectations with each album release, bouncing from one extreme to another.
His musical restlessness has always been palpable. Since rising into the pop spotlight with 1994's odd folk-rap hit "Loser," the category-defying singer-songwriter has stitched together elements of disparate styles, often with dynamic results. His work with the Dust Brothers yielded mash-up classics, most notably 1996's Odelay.
With subsequent albums, the Southern California artist has managed to keep things interesting, whether he's exploring lonesome country terrain or neon sound collages that freakishly zip in and out of genres.
On Modern Guilt, his new album in stores today, Beck teams up with fellow eclectic musical shuffler Danger Mouse.
The pairing of the eccentric artist and sample-crafty producer makes sense, especially given the murky undercurrents rippling through their recent work. But the resulting album, though certainly not a bust, is largely underwhelming. Despite darkly evocative lyrical nuggets here and there and finely layered production in some parts, Modern Guilt doesn't burrow as deeply as the title suggests.
The album actually starts on a heavy retro vibe, circa 1966. With its throwback psychedelic rock feel, "Orphans" and "Gamma Ray," the first two cuts, don't sound very modern. In fact, the jittery rhythm and simple, throbbing bass line of the latter have become a rather predictable and overused approach by Danger Mouse, whose real name is Brian Burton.
But afterward, the CD gains momentum and earnestly begins its drift into gauzy melancholia and narcotic paranoia, places Beck has explored before.
"Chemtrails" is a dense standout, bursting mid-song with a cacophony of drum rolls and spooky, atmospherics before ending abruptly. Beck's forlorn vocals float underneath it all as he croons incoherent lyrics about jets crashing: "I can't believe what we've seen outside/You and me watching the jets go down by the sea/So many people/They've already drowned."
Allusions to social bleakness abound. "Walls" is perhaps the most cynical cut on the album. Over a noisy choppy beat, Beck sings nonchalantly about shady foreign policy: "You got warheads stacked in the kitchen/You treat distraction like it's a religion/With a rattlesnake step in your rhythm."
None of the 10 songs on Modern Guilt extends beyond 4 minutes. The entire album stretches just a little past half an hour. Its brevity is refreshing, especially in an era of overstuffed pop albums. The leanness of the set begs for repeated listens.
But still, Modern Guilt doesn't reveal too much. It's also the last album Beck owes DGC, his label distributed by Universal Records. Perhaps that may partly explain the terseness that permeates the CD.
The collaboration that should have resulted in a wondrously adventurous, kaleidoscopic album ultimately feels too measured and slightly tentative.
But in brilliant flashes, underneath the circling beats and layers of dissonance, Modern Guilt still manages to evoke the gloom and uncertainty of the times.
Download these: "Chemtrails," "Youthless" and "Soul of a Man"
Outlaw country legend Willie Nelson and jazz titan Wynton Marsalis team up on Two Men with the Blues, a surprisingly spirited and deeply swinging live set of blues and pop standards. Acclaimed rap artist Jean Grae hits the streets with the cleverly titled Jeanius. And, to mark the 30th anniversary of its release, superstar Billy Joel reissues an elaborate four-disc deluxe edition of The Stranger, his 1977 melodic masterpiece.
Hear music from Beck's Modern Guilt at baltimoresun.com/listeningpost.