July 13, 2008

Beck’s Newest Lingers in Redundancy

"Modern Guilt" doesn't compare to the genre-defying musical precedent Beck has established for himself. Whereas his preceding body of work surprised, soothed and flowed with resounding consistency, his latest unassertively lingers in redundancy. An inevitable collaboration of like-minded souls, "Modern Guilt" is the resulting collusion with super-producer Danger Mouse. The problem is that Beck, on the majority of the album, compromises the ethos that previously defined his catalogue: experimentation and synthesis under graceful melodies. For much of the album he repeatedly slips into indistinguishable cadences. Danger Mouse's strategy - his signature go-go rhythm (oom pah pa oom pa) over a simple but prominent bass line - is beaten to a pulp in its overuse here, and in pop generally. In general, melancholy melodies are supplemented by production less effect-oriented than in the past. It's almost as if Danger Mouse and Beck adhered to an electronic sample quota on each track. On "Modern Guilt," it's a pixilated bugle - not unlike the next-level beeps in Tetris - that nudges the track forward while on "Orphans" they limit themselves to reverse-fade inserts and some galactic zaps. An ostensible reference to Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," Beck's cover art is more assertively informal, to the point of an incorrectly cropped Blue Note album. This unpretentious attitude permeates the album's writing and terse production whose results are self-evident: it lacks the unique resonating timbres one is accustomed to with Beck.Albert Hammond, Jr.: 'Como Te Llama?' (Black Seal)

Rating: 6

In keeping with his populist outlook, Hammond's new Web site, released in conjunction with "Como Te Llama?," seems to be a sort of visual map of friends of his, or people who've helped with the album, perhaps. The message here may just be one of vague hipster love-in, but it's a momentary diversion, and that seems to be marketing, er, 101 circa 2008. When it comes to the music itself, Hammond's made some more substantial changes than a prettied-up conceptual marketing campaign. In fact, the album's sound is so far apart from the debut that it's only the songwriter's good-natured approach that clues you in that this is an Albert Hammond, Jr. release. That, and the fact that Hammond's melodies tend to cluster around similar small phrases, patched together in new ways to create slightly different melodies. Despite the fact that the instrumentation on "Como Te Llama?" is much more conventional rock band (guitar, drums, keyboard, bass) and that Hammond uses familiar tricks like vocorder-laced vocals, these songs don't emerge sounding particularly Strokes-like. You get the feeling this is something Hammond has worked hard to achieve. The best material marries the artist's already-established breezy, mid-tempo alt-rock with a more muscular instrumentation. A year from now, whether "Como Te Llama?" will have the same sweet nostalgic feel that his earlier release, "Yours to Keep" has today, I'm not quite as convinced. We'll see.Son Ambulance: 'Someone Else's Deja Vu' (Saddle Creek)

Rating: 8

Joe Knapp's third full length as Son Ambulance starts off ebulliently. This is quite a departure from where Knapp started modestly with his split LP with Bright Eyes, "Oh Holy Fools" (2001), then onto "Euphemystic" (2001) and his self-titled and more fleshed out record often referred to as "Key" (2005). Formerly Knapp relied heavily on piano, but on this record he explores brave new musical territory. To record "Someone Else's Deja Vu," Knapp collaborated with former and current bandmate Jeffrey Koster who seems to be responsible for turning Knapp's songs into grandiose sonic masterpieces. The first track, "A Girl in New York City," switches seamlessly between Os Mutantes-style psychedelia and bossa nova. Knapp's voice silkily soars over top bird calls, ba bas, frenetic drums, whistles, and hand claps. The next song "Legend of Lizeth" starts out as a doo wop number with slow dreamy oohs and Knapp's voice drapes lazily over the background. The tempo picks up and the dynamic changes to the sound of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, and ends with fuzzed out guitars creating a wall of noise. Clocking in at over six minutes, Knapp weaves a tale about an enchanted forest, bells, his girl's sweet smile, and faeries. It almost sounds like Knapp has found otherworldly happiness. The record ends on a sad note. "Requiem for a Planet" is a dismal look at what humans have done to this planet, but it's good that musicians are addressing the state of the world today in song. Knapp is all about change these days.RZA as Bobby Digital: 'Digi Snacks' (Koch)

Rating: 7

In a world where music is primarily bought, sold, and promoted through the Internet, Bobby Digital seems ironically out of touch. Aside from a few shout-outs during the promotion of Wu-Tang's "8 Diagrams" and a buzz single a few months ago ("You Can't Stop Me Now"), "Digi Snacks" has arrived with minimal hype. That's a shame because this is the most consistent album in RZA's solo repertoire. His rhymes are occasionally impossible to understand, but they always appear to make sense to him - a quality that, if nothing else provides insight into a mind that obviously works differently than most. His not-quite-on-beat, congested, rolling mumble of a delivery has been a polarizing stylistic preference, but one that few can deny gives him extra character as a vocalist. It may be short on the moments of sublime brilliance that were scarcely strewn throughout his other albums, but it is also short on the scattered abominations. "Digi Snacks" is easily the most front-to-back listenable LP he has made as a solo artist. The sound of the production lies somewhere between RZA's previous Bobby Digital work and "8 Diagrams." He finds a happy balance between dark and upbeat and keeps the complexities of his soundscapes relatively toned down without any apparent sacrifice in quality. The result is the most accessible RZA solo album yet.I Was a Cub Scout: 'I Want You to Know That There is Always Hope' (Beggars)

Rating: 6

Whether they like it or not, UK-based I Was a Cub Scout will be endlessly compared to the Postal Service. Besides the fact that both acts are duos, their music is a catchy, sometimes breathtaking combination of pop and electronica. Like Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello of the Postal Service, these two Cub Scouts - Todd Marriott and William Bowerman - flaunt their emotions over drum machines and mellow synths and guitar. But the biggest disparity between these similar duos is the age difference and experience. While Jimmy and Ben were hitting strides with their respective projects, Dntel and Death Cab for Cutie, these two Britons were barely old enough to drive. But, surprisingly, their being green doesn't stand out like one would expect. Instead, in a way, it gives the songs on "I Want You to Know That There Is Always Hope" more validity. Rather than these being lovelorn 30-somethings, Marriott and Bowerman are young men struggling with very real and most likely new issues. And just for clarity's sake, the age reference wasn't a knock at Death Cab and their sensitive frontman. "I Want You..." is one of those records you throw on when the storm clouds have hit, but you can still see the sun in the distance. Marriott's longing lyrics over the sometimes uplifting synths and guitar embody the feeling of hope during the worst of it. Think Snow Patrol's last album, "Eyes Open," and how the band grew to a more grandiose, optimistic sound. The perfect example is "The Hunter's Daughter," a driving anthem telling the tale of two lovers on the verge of a make- up or break-up.

Originally published by PopMatters.com.

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