Beck scavenges for a new hit with 'Midnite Vultures'

by Joe Manera | 1/10/00 6:00am

When a novelty hitmaker's novelty wears thin, tumbleweeds and the faint whiff of decay usually trail him into oblivion. In Beck's case, Grammy gold and platinum sales supplanted the expected "Behind the Music" kiss-off. The Boy Least Likely to Last gave cut-and-paste culture a spin that knocked it off its axis.

In the wake of such globe-tipping, Beck has tried to give the impression that he doesn't work very hard. 1998's "Mutations" was, in his words, a throwaway album, not to be confused with an actual follow-up to the seminal "Odelay." In a recent "Spin" interview, he called "Midnite Vultures," which supposedly is his first serious artistic statement since 1996, a "dumb party record."

He's fooling no one. Beck is the smarty pants overachiever who claims not to read homework assignments, but he's clearly been studying chapters ahead. He may make every effort to seem casual, but his music never feels tossed-off.

This even goes for the projects he seems to have disowned. Once you get past the lackadaisical deliveries, "Mutations" contains exceedingly fine neo-folk blues. His entire oeuvre, up to this point, has been casually funky.

"Midnite Vultures" changes all this by forwarding a sexual agenda on par with the Gucchione-helmed "Caligula," only played for laughs. Beck can't afford to sleepwalk nowadays -- instead, he wants to sleep with you. And your mom. And your grandmom. Instead of loitering around convenience stores, he's hitting the singles' bar circuit, ordering perfumed drinks for the ladies.

The key weapon in this mock deflowering of America is the never-before-heard Beck falsetto. Every neutered note says the same thing: he's thrown his hat to the sky, and he wants to make it with you after all. It's a bit scary, actually.

In fashioning this sex farce, Beck's muse did a bit of traveling. Where "Mutations" breathed in the South, "Vultures" draws from the Northeast, specifically the Philly soul sound. The hypersexual freak jams that Prince popularized seem to be the inspiration, except they're decidedly less erotic here than they are on The Artist's best material. This is, after all, Beck.

And this is also the problem. If Beck modeled "Vultures" after Prince's "Black Album," he might as well have called it "Garish Pink Album." It's pretty silly stuff, and occasionally dopey. Too often Beck will mistake his stubbornly ironic pose for cool, so his records are never quite as engaging as they could potentially be.

On "Vultures," Beck's innuendo-laden funk seems clever for the first three spins, but not so much so thereafter. Too many of the double entendres sound like they wrote themselves, and music that could be both sexy and funny quickly becomes neither.

In lieu of becoming a great songwriter, Beck seems intent on becoming the Great Ironist. What "Vultures" makes clear is that he won't get there playing a laughingstock Lothario. At his very worst, he doesn't realize when he's shut his audience out of his own jokes. He sings "Her left eye is lazy / She looks so Israeli," in the "Superfly"-inspired "Nicotine & Gravy," and he means it to be so bad it's good. Instead, it's just bad.

Fortunately, Beck knows how to make a record. The shallowness of his approach is forgivable since the music itself is so schizoid and playful. Like "Odelay," it's a pastiche of pop styles woven together with mad-scientist fury.

"I want to defy / The logic of all sex laws," is the Trojan warrior's battle cry of the first cut, a horn-fueled slice of swing. And, for once, you believe that he means what he's saying. Later on, he goes so far as to confuse "business with leather" ("Mixed Bizness"). Frightening thought, but this time it's funny.

Beck's best songs live and die by the spirit of their own wicked inventiveness, and one must be careful not to downplay his production talents. There are quite a few minuses on this record, but twice as many pluses. "Milk & Honey" and "Peaches & Cream" -- the latter featuring a guest vocal by Beth Orton -- are as yummy as they sound. "Sexx Laws" is delirious pseudo-soul. In short, the entire record sounds terrific.

Right now this is enough. Someday Beck will make a record that marries his studio wizardry to more substantial musings. This isn't that record, even if few artists of his profile make albums as satisfying as this one. He's got a brain and he's got dancing feet. Two left ones, as a matter of fact. When he finds a heart, he'll be unstoppable. For now, though, this is designer freeze-dried funk -- giddy and hip, but cold, cold, cold.

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