Friday, July 15, 2016

Jeff Beck's "Loud Hailer"

Realizing that all such statements are inherently wrong, I still think Jeff Beck is the greatest electric guitarist in the world. He's been my favorite ever since I first heard The Yardbirds' Greatest Hits when I was 13 and had my synapses scorched by the insane one-string "raga" solo on "Shapes of Things" and the even more demented choke-strummed climax of "I'm A Man." His Truth album made an even bigger impression (heavier), and he was part (along with Hendrix and Johnny Winter) of the trinity of axe-slingers I worshiped as a terrible tyro trying to figure out how to light up them strings.

I bought three of his LPs when they were brand new: the "orange" Jeff Beck Group album, which initially puzzled me with its Motown homages and melodic instrumentals but in the fullness, wound up being my favorite (and an important signpost); Beck Bogert & Appice, which teamed him with the rhythm section from Vanilla Fudge and Cactus, reducing him to the level of a Long Island bar band muso; and Blow By Blow, which made my teenage guitar mentor and me think we needed to learn how to play good. We were wrong, of course, but Sir George Martin, creative listener that he was, correctly discerned that Beck's forte was as a melodist, rather than a heavy riff-rocker or chops-mongering fusioneer, and in so doing, gave him the basis for a career.

Once he got past the ignominy of being upstaged by lead singers and having his original heavy blooze shtick stolen by his pal Jimmy Page's more famous band, Jeff reinvented himself as a true virtuoso. Now he's a man, wa-a-ay past 21, and he's had 50 years to continually hone his technique until today, he's like a Zen master: every note is lovingly played with bare fingers and tweaked with impeccably controlled harmonics, hand vibrato, whammy bar, distortion, and feedback. As I've often said, Hendrix changed the world, but Beck lived long enough to fulfill his potential. For guitarists especially, this makes his live DVDs even more essential than his rekkids, so we can re-run them endlessly while trying to figure out exactly How He Does That. But he's got a new album, and it's both good and different than what you might have been expecting.

On his last album, 2010's Emotion and Commotion, Beck applied his mojo to material that included an aria from Italian opera as well as "Over the Rainbow," but fully half of the tracks featured cameos by female singers, most notably Joss Stone, who'd guested on his live-at-Ronnie-Scott's DVD, and Imelda May, whose band backed Beck on his Les Paul tribute project. Beck had previously featured female musos prominently in his band, including ex-Michael Jackson guitarist Jennifer Batten and bassists Tal Wilkenfeld and Rhonda Smith. And pragmatically, after he backed Kelly Clarkson on American Idol, it couldn't have escaped his attention that more people like female vocalists than guitar instrumentals.

So on his new one, Loud Hailer, the sound is built around singer Rosie Bones and rhythm guitarist Carmen Vandenberg's songs, with Beck's flashy fretwork serving as the clarion call to pull people's coats to Bones' political lyrics. It's a smart move for a moment when both the US and UK are in political turmoil. While Beck's endlessly inventive guitar growls like a junkyard dog, shrieks like a banshee, and buzzes like a high-tech hornet, Bones sings the blues for this age of rampant inequality, seething anger, and daily violence. The result is a showcase for Beck's chops that people who aren't already fans might actually want to listen to. (A friend told me that the "classic rock" station in Dallas was playing the first single, "Live in the Dark," every hour one day. How weird is that?) It ain't Truth, but thank Ceiling Cat, it's not trying to be.

A few highlights: Bones' anti-1% screed, "Thugs Club," with backing that shifts from boogie blues to bolero; the gentle, Axis: Bold As Love-like "Scared for the Children;" "Right Now," a late-capitalist anthem ("All we need is something new") featuring the rudest noises Beck's made since "You Shook Me" way back on Truth (and that's saying a hell of a lot); the agile funk of "Oil" (a paean to evabody's favorite addiction); and the hopeful valedictory "Shrine" (for my money, Bones' finest moment here). With Loud Hailer, Beck's succeeded in integrating his distinctive sound into a contemporary setting that sounds fresh, not forced or faked. While old fans might crab (and they will), to these feedback-scorched ears, it's an approach preferable to putting it in park or trying to rehash past glories.


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