Rock and Roll Feature: Beck's Modern Guilt

This is the twenty-sixth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.

In past rock and roll features, I've hinted a bit at where the inspiration to pick any one album comes from. Sometimes it's a spark from nowhere, or a desire to explore genres I haven't delved into all that much... or just to keep a good variety. In almost all cases though, it's an album I am currently listening to around the time I'm writing and so if one was so inclined, you could actually trace how my musical tastes progress and shift back and forth throughout the months and year to year.

Occasionally I think about that progression (something really no one should do) as a way to decide what my next feature might be. Usually that thought process leads me to trying to maintain a variety, but this month I even surprised myself at just how well I fit within my own most current stylistic box... had I thought about it I probably could have predicted what the feature would be this time around just by looking back a couple months.

Two months ago, I did a feature on folk/country alternative meets indie experimentation band: Wilco. I followed that up with a noisy, underground, shoegaze-esque rock album from Jesus and the Mary Chain. And so this month, as I should have known, I picked an artist who has covered all those styles and an album that has touches of all of them contained within while still sounding new and exciting... an artist that probably would fit in on stage along side Wilco and/or Jesus and the Mary Chain: Beck

Album to album, Beck continually intrigues and surprises me with his musical depth. The album of his I picked is actually one I hadn't been listening to much at all recently until I put it on by chance and remembered how blown away I was when I first heard it. I don't remember when or why I stopped listening to it, but I have it back in heavy rotation now.

The album I'm talking about is actually Beck's most recently release: Modern Guilt.

Beck's one of those artists who has a very unique style, but it's a style that actually comes from taking a bunch of different styles and mashing them all together. Urban beat poetry combined with a bluesy base, a touch of country, folk and earthy styles and some noisy experimentation, all set to great groove... that's a good way to describe it. Songs vary greatly from one to the next, yet each of his albums have a particular something that ties them together... sometimes more successfully than others. I think Modern Guilt is one of Beck's most cohesive albums though, and although I'm a fan of all of his work, this album has rapidly become a personal favorite. I consider it's one of his best, up their with classics like Mellow Gold or Odelay and melancholy masterpieces like Sea Change.

Compared to other works from Beck, this album feels dark and brooding, but in a seductive almost dreamy way, over melancholy. It also feels more sparse and minimal than past albums. The "sound collage" aspect that has always been a big part of Beck's music is still there, but the overall mixes and arrangements seem more open and spacey... maybe it's due to his collaboration with one of the most exciting modern producers around: Danger Mouse. That isn't to say that these songs don't sound like Beck... they certainly have plenty of his unique flair... but this is also a very unique album when viewed against the rest of his catalog.

The album opens with "Orphans" an interesting song with a slight drum groove to back up Beck's lyrical lines. The touches of acoustic guitar, piano and the airy, lush sounding choruses though, give it a much different feel than other material you may be familiar with from this artist. The melodies are sweeping and rich, but not sad and although there's plenty of variety to follow, this track sets the tone for everything to come.

"Gamma Ray" has simple, but gritty, guitar to underpin a beat that is both hypnotic and bouncy. It's the little touches that make it really stand out as unique though, whether it's the sounds that eschew in and out, or the short mid song bluesy break. And then we have "Chemtrails", a song that has since become my absolute favorite from this album. Channeling the shoegaze of bands like Lush and My Bloody Valentine while recalling recent efforts from Radiohead, Beck creates a sweeping, dreamy, psychedelic soundscape that floats and sways as it gets right into your head. Plenty of layers of sound come and go weaving this dense textured backdrop that all moves together in melodic harmony... great song. I especially like the little noise rock freak out that is tacked on to the end, complete with screeching fuzz guitar.

The title track has a cool, one might call it cabaret-esque, rolling groove that is punctuated by touches of piano, video game style beeps, strings and little guitar flourishes. I especially like Beck's vocal delivery on this song as it's subtle and restrained, but fits in perfectly, even in the light, nonsensical melody lines he sings towards the end. "Youthless" feels like the most urban track on this album. It's far darker though than that might imply with it's trance-like bass and drum parts (mixed with a bit of disco?) and more subtle sonic touches throughout. "Walls" on the other hand is off in an entirely different directly with eastern mysticism and psychedelic styles as it's main influence. That dreamy, darkness though is ever present and ties things together really well though, like similar melodic threads that run through every song, and this song is no exception.

"Replica" could almost be a Nine Inch Nails song on first glance due to it's hyper speed drum machine backing track. Vocal melodies and other small sounds keep it more airy and away from true machine edged industrial grind though. The drum machine is more just a background texture than a stylistic feature, like a noisy static that underpins things, creating a neat contrast that I really like. It's the static in the background placed directly against these massive organic sweeping emotional melodies that makes this track really interesting.

"Soul of a Man" is another standout and personal favorite from this album. Very visceral and primal, this track just oozes seduction from it's driving throb like bass and drum line, to the fuzzy spikes of guitar noise... it'll get you moving I'm pretty sure. "Profanity Prayers" has a lot of the "sound collage" aspects that are present throughout a lot of Beck's earlier works, but still maintains some of the airy, dark dreamy qualities that run throughout this entire album. This one also goes from stereo psychedelic freak out, to bluesy/country tinged slide guitar mid way before the drums and beat kick back in, making it a great reminder that Beck is always about mixing styles together in eclectic ways... in case anyone actually needed such a reminder.

Closing things off is another amazing song. "Volcano" is at it's heart a sad, brooding folk number, but it's backed by these simple, but massive sounding drums, sort of cloaked in a heavy haze, that make it sound dark and rich. And then there's these lush backing vocals and strings that fill in the stereo space and lift the song up providing those "clouds parting, light streaming through" moments I mention so often. A cool track and a great coda to close out the album.

All in all, it's a very consistent, cohesive and actually quite concise album from Beck. Everything sounds like different colors from the same pallet...to use another one of those cryptic abstractions I use so often... and sounds like a complete work. That dreamy, "shoegazy" darkness appears on multiple tracks and on the songs that it doesn't they still maintain the same emotional weight and charge throughout. This makes them blend well into the next, even if they are not directly stitched together into some sort of concept album. It's a pretty heavy work too... lots of emotion and a focus on feel throughout without sounding like it's reaching or overly monochrome.

It's also a very well edited album. No song over stays it's welcome and the whole is actually a relatively short in terms of total running time. I wouldn't mind seeing a song or two extended into some of the psychedelic jamming we know Beck is capable of, but the album isn't lacking without it.

Those things combined makes for an album that you can listen through all the way without even thinking and are left feeling satisfied. Everything just works really well, start to finish.

So in conclusion, if you've never heard anything by Beck before, this album can be a very accessible starting point. At the same time though, because he has such diversity across his catalog, each album is very unique and a product of their times, so starting at the beginning and following the progression might be better. In either case if you're into eclectic art rock, I think you'll find something you like in Beck's music. If you've been a little put off by some of the more hip-hop oriented styles of his early work, then you'll probably find this album to be a far more enjoyable listen as it really exhibits his songwriting and arrangement skills, but is less overtly urban than previous ones (you can view this as both a good and a bad thing I guess). If you've never been a Beck fan, for whatever reason, but are into bands like Radiohead, then this album is for you even if earlier ones might not be, as sonically it's very much in the same vein as some of the more recent works from that band. Oh and if you're already a longtime Beck fan... well, then you already know about this album and probably have formed your own opinions, but hopefully you enjoyed reading.

At the very least, albums like Modern Guilt, whether we think they're masterpieces or not, show us that Beck is still one of the most creative and unique artists in the modern music scene. If you're like me, then you also think it's a heck of a good listen too.

You can check out this album directly from Amazon here: Modern Guilt

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