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If Beck's Sea Change was such a friggin' masterpiece, why is everyone so relieved that he's back to making funky music with the Dust Brothers?

For all of its critical acclaim, Sea Change split Beck's base into two camps: those who like wallowing in that album's brand of melancholy folk, and those who prefer the post-modern, robot-dancing surrealist of Odelay and Midnite Vultures.

That Beck can skillfully juggle both personas is a testament to the elasticity of his talent. What other modern artist evokes both Nick Drake and Morris Day? In a sense, Beck is his generation's David Byrne, because both men voraciously absorbed the black rhythms of their times, even while maintaining a white intellectual's detachment about the times themselves.

Nine years after Odelay, the stylistically similar Guero couldn't possibly sound as fresh, but once the Dust (Brother) clears, it might stand as the superior union of head and heart, mind and body. For instance, the loopy hip-hop of "Que Onda Guero" initially feels like this year's "Where's It's At," but its affectionate depictions of a Chicano neighborhood ("Here comes the vegetable man in the vegetable van/with the horn that's honking like a mariachi band") from the perspective of the gringo outcast (message to practically every rock critic who's written about this album: "Guero" does not mean "white guy," it means fair-haired or fair-skinned. Latinos commonly refer to each other as "gueros.") elevate this song past its predecessor.

Elsewhere, the album's moodiest lyrics effectively clash with Beck's best pop instincts. The lilting bossa nova of "Missing" nearly masks the song's existential despair: "I prayed heaven today would bring this hammer down on me/and pound you out of my head." His sweet falsetto on the chorus of "Earthquake Weather" can't help him escape a void "filled with death." While the dada humor of "Hell Yes" shows that Beck retains some of his lighter side, on Guero he's done something more important: He's given his thirtysomething angst a beat.

By Gilbert Garcia



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