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[whitespace] Beck Beck undergoes a 'Sea Change' on new album.


Mutations

Beck extends his 15 minutes of fame on 'Sea Change'

By Gina Arnold

ONCE UPON A TIME, while I was driving around L.A., a friend pointed out Beck's house to me. It was in a nice, leafy suburb of Pasadena, much like Palo Alto. This surprised and shocked me: I would have guessed Silver Lake or Echo Park at the very least. I suppose there's no law that says a hipster rock star has to live in the type of bohemian neighborhood where there's a corner store within walking distance, but one does expect him to.

Beck comes from an extremely arty family: his mother, former Warhol Factory star Bibbe Hansen, owns an art gallery; his grandfather Al Hansen was part of the Fluxus movement that included Yoko Ono. Maybe his move to the 'burbs was in defiance of family tradition.

Beck's new album, Sea Change (Universal), is similarly unexpected. Instead of quirky, ironic, buzz-heavy indie rock, it contains a bunch of lugubrious ballads, all of which seem positively sincere. Beck himself says the songs began as country ditties, but they sound more like ambient British folk. Suffice it to say that you won't be seeing Beck doing his fake Prince routine in a white jumpsuit this time out, nor will he be impersonating an aged bluesman.

Is Beck in the midst of a deep depression? Is he messing with our minds? Is he perhaps returning to his roots? My guess is the last, since even at its most inventive, his work has always been redolent of the L.A. basin. The imagery on songs like "Tropicalia" and "Tasergun," the instrumentation, even the little bits of Spanish ("soy un perdedor") evoke the sun-soiled strips of lowlife L.A. better than any artist or group since the Eagles. And although it sounds different from his previous work--and sounds highly influenced by Radiohead (which shares a producer)--Sea Change is somehow no exception. It takes place in an arid landscape, where the singer is very sad and very stoned. "Sun don't shine, even when it's day," he sings on "The Golden Age," while the superdreamy "Round the Bend" sounds like Radiohead has met its match.

Sea Change concerns the breakup of a relationship. Songs like "Lost Cause" and "Guess I'm Doing Fine" are definitely about emotional travails. What's more, something about their drowsy pace and contemplative lyrics reminds me of another arty L.A. artist, Jackson Browne. Beck and Browne have much in common, including an early stint in New York City, where Browne wrote stuff for his first girlfriend, Nico, and the Velvet Underground before returning to L.A. to make it big. If it weren't that Beck's young, black-clad audience and Browne's older, Guatemalan-wear fans are so dissimilar, I could see them on the same tour.

One thing Beck's new album brings up is just how undeveloped most of today's younger artists are. Beck was lucky to have come of age in an era--the early 1990s--when the musical climate was open to his inventive mind and experimental urges. He now has an audience that is willing to hear him change from a jokey, pranky dabbler in the blues to a sincere and subtle singer/songwriter.

That's rare in pop music. The New York Times ran a fascinating article last week on the Backstreet Boys' bad business deals, in which the Boys themselves complained bitterly about being unable to grow artistically because their management (which created them from scratch) didn't allow them to. Whine, whine, whine. One wonders just what they mean by "growth." Did they plan on writing sophisticated songs with klezmer solos, salsa rhythms and lyrics about man's inhumanity to man? Did they wish to swear a lot or add strings to the arrangements? And did they really think they had a hope in hell of getting a new audience?

If so, then they are even dumber than they look and sound--and that's saying an awful lot. Beck has come off as somewhat shallow--but dumb, never. Sea Change shows a lot of artistic growth and maturity. Sea Change is due in stores on Sept. 24, but you can preview it online at www.beck.com.


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From the August 29-September 4, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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