The Major and the Minor

A roundup of big-name recordings that live up (or down) to expectations.

U2
The Best of 1980-1990/The B-Sides
(Island)

Over time, record-company executives have learned that greatest-hits collections sell better if they're supplemented with extras--a new single, random oddities that failed to earn their keep or, ideally, both. It's a formula that's worked to perfection for U2, whose latest package entered the Billboard charts in the number-two position and is still lingering in the top ten. But don't expect any revelations from The Best of 1980-1990/The B-Sides, my nominee for the laziest compilation of the season.

How lazy is it? The accompanying booklet contains no liner notes whatsoever, and only a few of the photos included would qualify as unusual or even interesting. Likewise, the smashes on the first of these two CDs aren't sequenced in a manner that shows evidence of the slightest thought; they're not in chronological order, and there are some quizzical omissions (like nothing from 1981's October) and odd inclusions (such as a whopping four tracks from Rattle and Hum, the weakest U2 album of the Eighties). The B-Sides companion disc is just as sloppy. Only "Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl" was made prior to 1985, and the majority of the other fourteen songs will be familiar to even a casual Bono booster. And while it's possible to tell the differences between 1987's "Sweetest Thing" and the new, spiffed-up recording of it being promoted to rock radio, it takes a little work.

Once upon a time, the men of U2 did everything they could to let the music lovers who paid their bills know that they were appreciated, but now they announce tours at K-marts and present themselves as the disposable consumer products they are. The Best of 1980-1990/The B-Sides belongs on the shelf right beside them.

Beck
Mutations
(DGC)

Beck Hanson has always been a contrary cuss: After "Loser" became a radio staple, he made certain that his live performances of the song were all but unlistenable. Mutations is a similar act of perversity--a disc that does everything it can not to satisfy fans who climbed aboard the Beck bus following 1996's Odelay. Gone are the hip-hop beats and Dust Brothers sparkle that made that album so irresistible, replaced by a batch of tunes that lope along like a tortoise with no interest in winning races. This effect is exacerbated by Beck's decision to kick off the proceedings with "Cold Brains" and "Nobody's Fault but My Own," arguably the platter's two dullest efforts. If you can't pass this test, he seems to be saying, you might as well be listening to the other Hansons--the ones who look like teenage girls.

Those who stick around past the second song will find their persistence rewarded, but only modestly: Mutations, which Beck co-produced with Nigel Godrich, is a mostly pleasant collection of shaggy throwaways. Still, its charms may not hit home with people addicted to immediate gratification. "We Live Again," a lovely bit of Sixties psychedelia, has grabby lyrics ("Over the hill, a desolate wind/Turns shit to gold and blows my soul crazy") that Beck undercuts by way of the most laconic delivery imaginable; "Dead Melodies" slows a Robyn Hitchcock-by-way-of-"Lady Jane" melody to a beauteous crawl; and "Sing It Again" is drunken rhapsody presented with the utmost sobriety. The music occasionally cracks a smile: "Canceled Check" is a countryish air that collapses in a swirl of synthesizers. But "Tropicalia" hides some typical barbs behind its sassy Brazilian arrangement. As Beck puts it, "Love is a poverty you couldn't sell/Misery waits in vague hotels/To be a victim."

Our hero isn't always so glum: In the irresistible "O Maria," he declares that "the fabric of folly is falling apart at the seams" in the full knowledge that the image is more than a little ridiculous. But at the same time, he doesn't exactly knock himself out trying to entertain his loyal followers, which is why the David Geffen Company is promoting the album with all the enthusiasm of Newt Gingrich at a Bob Livingston rally. Nonetheless, there's something cheering about Beck's refusal to get with the program. Throughout Mutations, he dares to be quixotic--and in a scene with plenty of followers but precious few leaders, that's a very good thing.

Elvis Costello, With Burt Bacharach
Painted From Memory
(Mercury)
Plush
More You Becomes You
(Drag City)

Elvis Costello, once the brashest of blokes, has become one of the most self-conscious artists in music. He no longer writes songs because he must--because he's got to get them out or perish in the process. Rather, he dabbles in conceptualization in an effort to please forty-plus reviewers who keep their snoots permanently raised (or younger scribes who merely think like them). He struck the mother lode in this regard when he hooked up with Burt Bacharach, an aging tunesmith whose rich but cheesy melodies have recently been rediscovered by journalists too cool to admit liking them the first time around. The partnership profited both parties: It allowed Costello to place himself on the popular pantheon alongside the Broadway/Tin Pan Alley divinity even as it freed Bacharach from the campy trap that he'd stepped into via his cameo in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.

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