Some people play a guitar. Jeff Beck attacks one. At his best the sounds he coerces from his white Strat are criminally inventive, rude—or in his words—“slippery”. Pair this with the production and performance of Andy Wright, who has twiddled the knobs for everyone from Massive Attack to Simply Red, and you have what amounts to Jeff Beck doing the nasty at a rave. The opening cut “Earthquake” starts off with a grinding Nine Inch Nails keyboard figure and adds on some distorted vocals. Then Mr. Beck enters, effortlessly tossing little riffs atop the stew, but he’s only warming up. About two minutes into the song when he cuts loose with a solo—a solo that hits you like a mule kick between the eyes—you remember why A: of all the sixties guitar gods, only Beck can still look at himself in the mirror and B: why most electronica sucks. By the time you get to the two cuts featuring British vocalist Imogen Heap, the wickedly greasy “Dirty Mind” and a Prodigy on speed version of Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin”, Jeff has already secured his reputation for another decade, should he decide to vanish as he did for most of the ‘90s.
When Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck were the guiding lights of rock guitar in the sixties and seventies, all were at the top of whatever game they decided to follow. Page had Zeppelin, Clapton everything from Cream to Derek and the Dominos. Then one by one, perhaps as age crept up, Page stopped playing, and well, Clapton should have. From “White Room” to “Wonderful Tonight” is a long and ugly road. Only Beck, by pushing himself in new directions, namely jazz/rock fusion, kept himself vital. By surrounding himself with musicians such as Jan Hammer, with who he created the incredible Wired album, Jeff Beck refused to rest on his laurels, endlessly reform past groups (hello, Mr. Page?) or make watered down pop pabulum. Granted, he hasn’t been as visible as the others (this is only his second release in a decade), but what he’s put out has never taken the safe route. By immersing himself in the rigid confines of electronic music (as he did on his last release, 1999’s Who Else!), Beck’s frenetic guitar with it’s groove-heavy pacing and vitality is allowed to both complement and dominate the songs. His method of playing guitar lines in a uniquely non-linear fashion—he goes from A to B, but stops off at Q on the way—is exactly what this sort of lockstep music requires if it’s to have any humanity at all. Even when he slows the pace down, such as on the (almost) soothing “Blackbird/Suspension”, with its Windam Hill bird chirps and New Age keyboard washes, his tone, a dirty, piercing sound still rings true.
From the Yard (birds) to House, Jeff Beck has few equals when it gets right down to it. Hopefully this elusive yet influential mainstay of modern guitar won’t hide out as he has been prone to in the past, and continue to challenge both himself, and his listeners, by simply playing Jeff Beck guitar. And when he does, I’ll sell my copies of the last 20 years of Page and Clapton releases to hear it.
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