Somber songs of the plaid bartenders
Western Unions of the country Westerns
Silver Foxes lookin' for romance
With the chain-smoke Kansas flashdance ice pants
Beck "rapped" these words in 1996, the artistic apex of "Hotwax," the artistic apex of Odelay, the artistic apex, to date, of Beck's career. He's vacillated wildly ever since, alternating between serious and goofball albums. First came 1998's Mutations, slinky but somber. Then there was the following year's profoundly polarizing Midnite Vultures, a ludicrously frivolous house party spraying irony around with firehose intensity. And how about 2002's dead-serious Sea Change, his heartbroken singer/songwriter lament? These extremes don't necessarily negate each other -- one can adore the pre-"Loser" gem "Satan Gave Me a Taco" and the Sea Change weeper "It's All in Your Mind" in equal measure.
Following the pattern, Guero -- his new release on Universal -- should be a goofball album, especially given the reprisal of the Dust Brothers, producing for the first time since Odelay. But Beck also reenters the public arena via a massive, ponderous, 4,000-word New York Times Magazine story soberly apprising his legacy, his celebrity circle of friends and lovers, his spiritual resurgence via Scientology. Its headline canonized "Beck at a Certain Age." Let's keep that age around 14.
A 14-year-old would not craft "E-Pro," Guero's leadoff track and improperly chosen first single, with its bad-ass guitar riff (Soundgarden, almost!) and na na na na chorus. Lovely, toe-tappin', Live 105-ready, instantly forgettable. Start over. "Qué Onda Guero" does -- careening through the Latino Disneyland of Beck's L.A. adolescence, with a bedroom funk beat similar to "Hotwax." Not bad; just don't try to do the Hot Dog Dance to it.
At times, Guero feels like the silly/serious hybrid holy grail -- "Girl" mixes eight-bit video-game beats and a boisterous Beach Boys chorus with Mars Volta lyrical grit. "Missing" is the obvious Sea Change grad student, continuing Beck's obsession with Gilberto-grade bossanova beats as he bellows in a deep, sonorous, take-me-seriously voice. And "Earthquake Weather" is a phenomenal production feat, a genuine Paul's Boutique artifact, fusing Brazilian guitar to slashing turntablist cuts and kiddie-pop keyboards. The acid-trip sequence in Garden State II: Whine Harder will totally change your life.
And then there's "Hell Yes," Guero's obvious Eureka Moment, its bassline oozing cartoon menace, Beck's equally cartoonish hip-hop flow blowing down manholes and up skirts, an unbilled Christina Ricci cooing "Please enjoy" periodically like a giddy geisha girl. Five seconds is all Beck needs to assert total dominance, and this -- this alone -- asserts, asserts, asserts.
The rest of Guero floats peacefully by, a haze of uneasy white funk groove with vicious basslines and occasional literary bite. Guero overall doesn't embarrass anyone, solid collectively and even adding a few select tunes to the one-CD Essential Beck Mix pantheon. But within that pantheon, "Hotwax" outweirds them, "Jackass" outcharms them, "Debra" outsexes them, and "Lost Cause" outcries them.
This man's maturation process, ideally, needs to be halted completely. Guero is a wonderful, innovative, safe album that Beck should never make again. As L. Ron Hubbard himself suggested, "Let's get retarded." Get stupid, get ridiculous, get crass, get absurd. Dalí, not Dylan. For I still proudly carry a hyperspecific memory of listening to 1994's "Pay No Mind" while languishing in a Taco Bell drive-through, laughing like an idiot when Beck mumbled "Like a giant dildo crushing the sun" as though it were Scripture. Because, in fact, it is. -- Rob Harvilla
The First Cut Is the Deepest
Hey, ladies, want to know how to stop any argument with your man? Just get in his face and yell "Vasectomy!" His brain will flood with horrifying images of knives in not-nice places, and he'll be unable to speak. Mission accomplished.
When Zach Smith, a 28-year-old, married friend of mine, decided to get his vas deferens clipped, he was understandably nervous. His doctor suggested he wear headphones during the procedure to distract him, which Smith thought was a pretty good idea. Intrigued by the concept of picking a soundtrack for your own neutering, I called Smith a few days after the procedure to find out how the tunes went down.
Q: So, how are you doing?
A: Terrific. If you don't want kids, this is the way to go. I got a Xanax before the surgery, and it kept me cool the whole time. I haven't even needed the pain pills the doctor prescribed me.
Q: Most men live in fear of this. It wasn't so bad?
A: I was dreading the whole thing: "Oh, God, my nuts are going to hurt" and all that. Nobody wants their nuts to hurt. But it hasn't been that bad: no pain, no swelling, no bleeding. Your legs are in stirrups, which is kind of embarrassing. It was kind of uncomfortable, but the Xanax really helped with that. And my doctor was smart enough to glue up the wounds. An ice pack on the nuts for a couple of hours and I was fine.
Q: What did you listen to?
A: Beck's Sea Change.
Q: Good choice: It's nostalgic. Why'd you pick it?
A: Mellow, mellow, mellow. No unexpected loud noises.
Q: Did it help?
A: I was too drugged up to pay too much attention to it. I didn't have to listen to the doctor talk to the nurse or tools moving around. I don't know what I would have been listening to as background noise if I hadn't had [headphones] on, so I don't have a point of reference. And I'm not having it done again to find out.
Q: Was there a point in the operation when you suddenly wanted to listen to the Indigo Girls?
-- Jordan Harper
Chocolate Sea-Salty Balls
Hello, children! This is Chef, the lady-loving, soul-singing, cafeteria hero of South Park, Colorado. I'll be joining my close personal friend, Isaac Hayes, in your neck of the woods this week, accompanied by a few faces you might not recognize. Since I'm feeling helpful, allow me to introduce you to...
My Sister, Sloppy Joan. She usually joins me in the lunchroom at South Park Elementary, serving delicious, nutritious food to all the happy children. She hasn't been the same since Grandma dropped her off a Vespa when she was little. Even though she can't talk right, she sure can sing. Believe me, just like my girl Chaka Khan, she's a regular freaky-deaky funk machine. Tell me something good, Sloppy Joan!
Aunt Minerva lives high up in the hills outside of South Park. She mostly keeps to herself, singing from a cave to the mountain goats and bald eagles that are her only friends, in a voice as soothing as a clear summer stream -- or Roberta Flack's. We don't see her much because of her fear of the sky, but we can hear her voice echoing down from the hills. We're so lucky to have you here, Auntie M, so tonight, I celebrate my love for you! -- Jonathan Zwickel
Isaac Hayes, Chaka Khan, and Roberta Flack headline the Fifth Annual Riviera Beach Jazz & Blues Festival, starting at 5 p.m. Friday, April 1, and noon Saturday, April 2, at Blue Heron Boulevard and Ocean Mall Road on Singer Island, Riviera Beach. Tickets cost $12 for students and seniors, $25 for adults each day. Call 561-845-4004, or visit www.JazzOnTheBeach.com.