Beck Hansen has always been one of those artists that I never got at first. I was young (12) and stupid and had the whole "ALL SONGS MUST MAKE SENSE AT FIRST LISTENBLARRRRRGGFGDJKH" shoved down my throat. Then I discovered bands that no one else I knew liked or ever heard of. Which led me to bands like Oingo Boingo, Animal Collective, Ween, They Might Be Giants, Grizzly Bear, and lastly, Beck. And like most of the bands I listen to or try to get into, I bought the most recent album first. In fact, the first album I bought with my own money was "Guero", actually. I remember hearing/seeing the video for "E-Pro" on VH1 and being bought by Hansen's charms, both musically and visually. Each of his albums had some visual attachment to coincide with the music, which brought the listener a bit closer to Beck and what's going on in his mind. So, without knowing any of the other songs in advance, I shelled out the $13.99 for "Guero" and popped it into my CD player right in the store. From the opening of "Girl", I was hooked.
Cut to just today (July 8th). I own most of Beck's albums (Sadly, only half of "Odelay") and the single from "Modern Guilt"; "Chemtrails". It sounded somewhat different than his previous albums. Learning that Danger Mouse was behind the wheel of the new album made me smile, knowing that the same creativity and skills he brought to his other projects (Gorillaz- "Demon Days", Gnarls Barkley, "The Grey Album") would shine down on this. It seems like a match made in heaven. Well, heaven takes repeated listens to truly understand it's majesty.
The whole of "Modern Guilt" sounds like the background music for a go-go bar in the year 3000, with each song harkening back to the 60's and 70's. It seems that Beck is keeping the album and his new sound very stripped down, with what sounds like the least amount of spacey instrumentation and wonky keyboard bleeps in any of his albums since "Mellow Gold". It starts off with "Orphans", which, at the beginning, sounds like every other Beck song: electronic beats, drumloops, etc. Then the vocals burst in with a very Dylan-esque guitar melody and lyrical structure. The song then goes on through usual Beck lyrics (Just look in the Becktionary!) and a very Flaming Lips-like aura of sounds and background music. By the time the second track "Gamma Ray" rolls around, with it's go-go club beat and ghostly groaning, the 60's references and callbacks are out in the open and they don't disappear anytime soon.
The single "Chemtrails" starts off slowly, like a gospel one would hear in church. The sound is definitely spectral and sweeping, which contribute to the song's lyrics about planes flying over our heads dispensing drugs in the form of gasses to either brainwash us or kill us. You would actually be surprised how much of this theory there is on this internet of ours. Then again, any crackpot with an email address can make a name for himself on here. The title track sounds like Paul McCartney if shoved into a recording studio blindfolded, with piano and drums straight out of the Beatles' early years. Beck even throws in a few "La-da-da-da"'s for good measure. "Youthless" and "Walls" are bound to be played in a few underground clubs, with enough disco throwbacks to choke a small camel. Both tracks feature heavenly distorted drums courtesy of D.M.
Speaking of distorto-drumsland, "Replica" is done in a fashion that requires repeated listening (or once if you have a keen ear for off-beat music in 4/4 time) to get used to. "Soul of A Man" is my favorite off the disc. With reverse cymbals, hand claps, and more fretless bass than you can shake a...fretless bass at, the song is reminiscent of Frank Zappa's early days with the Mothers. "Profanity Prayers", while being the funniest song title I've heard in a long while, sounds very much like a surfing anthem with some slide guitar thrown into the mix. The closer "Volcano" is a stomping guitar dirge that winds everything down to a calming but satisfying halt.
At only 10 tracks and clocking in at only 33 minutes, "Modern Guilt" feels too over too soon. Then again, the album feels like more of a side project than an actual album. And remember the visual addition I was blathering on about? Not much going on here. White border and three black and white photos balance out the black and white lyrics printed on the inside. Well, he WAS going for a stripped down sound... All nitpicking aside, "Modern Guilt" is a great album for what it is, but requires multiple listens to hear everything that Beck and Danger Mouse shoved into a half an hour of music.
Coming up next: Sleep...maybe.