Ever since the Grammy Awards made Beck safe for mainstream consumption, longtime fans from the Bongload Record days have most likely watched his every slack-happy move with a mixture of awe and guarded contempt. Give a guy more greenbacks and gadgetry than Santa Claus in a bull market, and it stands to reason that any loser-savant will find a way to get sucked into the gaping maw of mediocrity.
Yet after fourteen arduous months in his home studio, the SoCal native returns with something you'd be foolish to call watered down -- a victory in itself, considering corporate music's knack for pissin' in the punch bowl. Midnite Vultures incorporates pretty near everything from the last three decades of music: irresistibly funkified booty grooves, R&B and vintage soul (plus lethal smatterings of utterly soulless Kraftwerk flavorings) from the Seventies, new wave, dude rock and bump-and-grind carnality from the Eighties (that little purple hermaphrodite from Minneapolis gets more than his/her share of mimicry), plus trance, techno, hip-hop, folk-hop, etc., from these here wanin' Nineties. Toss in some world, country, bluegrass (love the banjotron!) and gospel wailing, patch it through some kinda sonic recyclatorium, add a killer sense for melody, and -- presto! -- information overload you can tap your toes to, a delirious romp at the hedonist's ball.
Declaring "I want to defy the logic of all sex laws" on the disc's punchy, horn-driven opener seems a tall order indeed (as if lust had any shred of logic behind it). But Beck skillfully regulates all of the fluids in his "garden of sleaze." The "man-thing"s and "mistress C.O.D."s of the album do the nasty far less than the machinery seems to. From a lyrical standpoint, this stuff suppresses the urge to knock boots in favor of the need to chuckle. Consider ironic sentiments such as "You make a garbage man scream," "What's your zip code, baby" and "I'm glad I got my suit dry-cleaned before the riots started" before checking your pulse, horndogs. Not exactly Charles Bukowski rising from the grave to host a new-age men's encounter session, is it?
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The standout track "Nicotine & Gravy" pits a slow, menacing groove replete with scratches, a cowbell and a fuzz-bottom bassline flush against space-age noise and back-masking dissonance; it conjures up the scarier parts of Sgt. Pepper's "Day in the Life" before launching into what sounds like Armenian wedding music. "Milk & Honey" is another meticulously crafted beaut, with guest guitarist Johnny Marr in a cheery thud ruckus that borrows clavinets -- whatever those are -- and broken furniture. "Debra," a terrifically soulful number that was formerly a signature live-encore number, finally finds its rightful home on disc. The steamy cut contains elements of "My Love for You," by Ramsey Lewis, and is a slow-burnin' hunka hankerin' ("Oh, how Jenny's fine coozadelic sister, Debra, is the sweet young thang to 'get with,' baby") that demonstrates Beck's astounding white-boy vocal range: a weightless falsetto to rival both Mick Jagger and Gene Ween.
Sure, Beck's a Grammy-winnin' freak of nature on a huge, greedy label with money and toys to burn. So what. He's the best one we've got.