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Beck:: Guero (Album Review)

You’d think that, 12 years into his famously chameleon-like career, Beck Hansen would have proved his commitment to experimentation. After deftly and audaciously mixing delta blues with hip hop, psychedelic pop with back-porch country and folk on the MTV-busting “Mellow Gold” and “Odelay”, he shifted his focus to songwriting of a Beatles-like classicism for the sweet “Mutations” in 1998. A year later (with the Technicolor “Midnite Vultures”), Beck was cutting Princely funk with Brazilian tropicalia, but made another radical switch with 2002’s “Sea Change”, an extraordinarily forlorn batch of Nick Drake-styled folk songs reflecting his state of mind after the break-up of a long-term relationship. No mere dilettante, however diligent, could possibly sustain a career for that long, yet the accusation of dabbling is that most frequently levelled at Beck. By now, it should be plain enough – the dude just digs diversity. With “Guero” (it’s Latino slang for ‘white guy’), broadly speaking Beck returns to the pick ‘n’ mix territory of “Odelay” and has again engaged the Dust Brothers as producers. Guests, collaborators and (carefully credited) samples abound, not least of all of the Beastie Boys – whose “So What’cha Want” is the hook on which guitar-crunching opener “E-Pro” hangs – and Jack White, who both co-wrote and played bass on “Go It Alone”. Depth and subtle texture are provided by everything from clavinets to handclaps and bird calls and, every step of its way, “Guero” swings, rolls, struts and shuffles with Beck’s trademark understated cool. The Dust Brothers are surely responsible for the album’s cohesiveness and focus – it sounds like it could have been recorded nowhere else but LA and such specificity works strongly in its favour. It’s more than the mimicking of mariachi brass by parping car horns and the Latino street banter that enliven perky, hip hop centrepiece “Qué Onda Guero”, however. The city’s physical vigour and sprawling diversity are there in the insufferably smoggy heat evoked by “Earthquake Weather” and in the glossy, Steely Dan-toned fusion it briefly references. He may roam through slouchy, downbeat country (“Scarecrow”), spare-picked, twanging blues (“Farewell Ride”) and flirt with bossa and Bollywood strings (the gorgeous “Missing”), but Beck’s a city boy at heart and LA is his filter. “Guero” proves that the old, post-modern magic still works. (review by: Jason Evans)