Beck: “Modern Guilt”
By Rebecca Aranda
Beck makes his mark with his constantly mutating musical creations. On an album like “Mellow Gold” he is a melancholy cowboy who croons with an acoustic guitar, while on another like “Midnite Vultures,” he channels the gods of disco and funk and turns into a bonafide soul machine.
Lately, Beck combines all the elements of his early career into a pleasant mix, which has become his trademark. His last album, “The Information,” gleans bits and pieces of his previous phases to achieve a consistent sound, one which errs more on the side of dark electronica than sweet and soulful.
With his latest effort, “Modern Guilt,” Beck adds a little more darkness, but also a little more soul. For instance, on the song “Chemtrails,” Beck mournfully sings, “Down by the sea, swallowed by evil…Watching the sea, full of people already drowning / So many people…” The grim lyrics are interlaced with dreamy humming, but bizarrely, the song ends with a distortion-filled rock guitar solo. This kind of musical quirkiness is quintessential Beck, and the rest of the album follows suit.
All of the songs are layered with Beck’s signature soft voice and heavy, intricate beats thanks to a clean (and surprisingly calm) production from Danger Mouse. There are some other pleasant surprises along the way, like Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, who provides some guest back-up vocals for the opening track “Orphans” and the tumbling “Walls.” The title track is a jaunty little tune in itself, but within it, more troubled lyrics emerge, exemplified by Beck’s last words: “Don’t know what I’ve done, but I feel afraid.”
Beck’s eighth album shows the maturity that he has reached with age (it was released on his 38th birthday, after all). He is acutely self-aware, and at his best, he can weave a mesmerizing closing track like “Volcano,” referencing the “ghost in [his] heart.” And despite all of his earnest melancholy, he also lets a little funk slip out throughout the album, like the rollicking “Gamma Ray,” which charges forward with all the intensity of a lone car speeding down a highway.
At some points, “Modern Guilt” almost sinks into weariness, nearly shifting from mellow to soporific. But every time, Beck rescues his music from the despair that his lyrics exude with fresh beats and gorgeous harmonies. “Modern Guilt” is more than a guilty pleasure—Beck transforms his guilt into our aural pleasure.
Sigur Rós: “Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust” (“With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly”)
By Abe Ahn
The Icelandic four-piece over the past decade has made what can only be called epic music. Bowed electric guitar, a lot of reverb and orchestral arrangements are its signature sound, the kind of music that evokes the Icelandic landscape in beautifully layered post-rock melodies.
With its fifth record, Sigur Rós has decided to take it easy, opting for traditional piano and string instrumentation with long, emotive choruses. However, this is achieved to mixed effect.
While the bare, naturist sound of “Gobbledigook” is a welcome change—a kind of Animal Collective meets Radiohead mash-up—songs like “Ára bátur,” where the London Oratory Boy’s Choir kicks in during the song’s almost nine-minute emotional climax, are too sentimental for their own good. “Góðan daginn” and “Festival” feel more like traditional Sigur Rós with spacey, post-rock arrangements and gradual build-ups, but the quickly paced string and horn of “Við spilum endalaust” reveal the band’s experimentation with simpler, more pop-infused melodies.
Likewise, “Íllgresi” is the record’s most acoustic offering, leaving the orchestra behind in favor of singer Jónsi Birgisson’s vocals and guitar. Despite my hang-up-shang-ups about the band’s direction (I anticipated the louder, more aggressive prog-rock influences that came up in the band’s last release, “Hvarf/Heim”), it’s hard to be upset at a band that is as bravely experimental and sincerely expressive as Sigur Rós. On this record, there is no reason to believe otherwise.