December 1999
s m u g
and such and such
Noah Robischon


You shouldn't be too surprised to hear that Beck's new album, Midnite Vultures, sounds a lot like Prince, because the two have a lot in common already. They're both short. They're both talented guitar players and composers. And we know a few things about both of their families--Beck's mom hung with Andy Warhol and his grandfather was an artist; Prince's father was a distraught pianist who beat his wife and made doves cry. For now we can only imagine Beck dropping to the stage and dry humping it the way Prince did while singing Nikki in Purple Rain.

To aid your visualization of this moment -- which we can only hope will accompany a feature-length Beck film one day--listen to Peaches & Cream, the track with the most shake-it-down-now on Vultures. The soulfulness of the song is aided in no small part by Beck's falsetto vocals. High-pitched singing has sexed-up innumerable songs, but hearing it from Beck brings not only Prince to mind, but Mick Jagger on Emotional Rescue and Michael Stipe on Tongue. Which goes to show that white rockers generally risk sexy falsetto vocals only when their careers are mature enough to handle it.

Beck is way too successful to be tarnished by a mediocre album. Sure, hearing soul, disco, rap, and electronica mixed with banjos, harmonicas, and pneumatic drills on Vultures is impressive, but re-mixing has always been Beck's genius. Odelay cut together folksy Americana tunes with 1960s riffs and created an unheard of modernist interpretation of rock genealogy. Mutations -- supposedly a project to fill the gap between Odelay and Vultures -- already proved that he could cut and paste samples into exotic and funky music. That's partly why the new album doesn't feel like much of a musical departure.

That won't stop Vultures from being in the rotation at all tomorrow's 20thC. fin de siecle parties. Beck, after all, has accumulated a Leonard Skynard-like following. I discovered this at a dive in Brooklyn after my pal asked the barkeep to put Midnite Vultures in the CD player. Halfway through the second listening he goes to retrieve the disc, and as soon as the sound cuts out an alterna-guy gets up and shouts, "What the fuck! Put that back on, man!" However, music that acts as chips for a roomful of dips doesn't always play so well through a set of headphones. Vultures lacks the density that kept me enthralled while listening to Beck's previous works. Not that sex romps need to be deep all the time, but this album seems to forgo meaning in favor of humor and irony a bit too often.

Debra, for instance, is simply hilarious for the first five listens (I met you/ at JC Penney /I think your name tag said Jenny/ I wanna get with you/ and your sister/ I think her name is Debra). But then you can't help wondering where this song is taking you--other than into the vibrating bedroom to make fun of pick-up artists. Debra is funny enough that it at least stands out from tracks like Mixed Bizness, Out of Kontrol, and Beautiful Way, which meander through images but fail to conjure many brilliant metaphors.

Not every track is empty, though. Get Real Paid starts out as a sendup of techno culture viewed through the eyes of a raver (we like the boys with the bulletproof vests/ we like the girls with the cellophane chests). Then it turns to the quasi-existential angst that plagues these crass rich kids riding in executive jets (I wanna know if I'm worth the time/ there's so much to do before you die). Get Real Paid stares straight into the abyss that is eating at our who cares culture. It's a song that anti-ironist Jebediah Purdy could almost love--or at least hold up as further proof of our decaying morals.

The next track, Hlwd. Freaks, points a glock nine right between the eyes of rap music. The only song on Vultures produced by The Dust Brothers, Freaks overflows with satin sheets, tropical oils, hot dogs, hot sex and even some intra-album references (like the Hyundai that Beck fetishizes again in Debra). Still, it smirks a bit too broadly to rock a rhyme that's right on time (that's tricky, as you know).

One great test of any funk or soul album is whether it can stand up to being played during sex. Throw 1999, or any other Prince album, into the CD before getting it on and you're sure to send those skyrockets into flight. The odd thing about Midnite Vultures is that it sounds, at first, as though it would put just the right boogie in your bazooty, like in Nicotine & Gravy when Beck sings "I'll leave graffiti in places you've never been kissed." But then all that irony comes dripping through and it just doesn't hold up. And that, in the end, is what separates Beck's brilliance from Prince's, well, princeliness.

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