Jeff Beck’s Emotion & Commotion is his first album in seven years, and it finds the recent Grammy-winning guitarist (for his version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” on 2009’s Performing This Week … Live at Ronnie Scott’s DVD) and second-time, Rock-and-Roll-Hall-of-Fame inductee once again confounding expectations.
Among his peers in the pantheon of guitar gods, Beck has always been the one most open to taking paths less trodden, and his experimental urges have led to a very eclectic mix of elements on Emotion & Commotion. Most notable is the presence of the 64-piece orchestra that provides accompaniment on several tracks. The idea to incorporate an orchestra came from a desire to combine seemingly incongruous styles on different kinds of non-classical music, which Beck has said was prompted in part by his recording of Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5” a few years back. He has also compared this recording experience to making 1975’s Blow By Blow, and that surely is as much to do with the collaborative collection of artists here, as it is with the resultant jazz vibe of the finished album. In addition to working with the amazing group of musicians who essentially have been his backing band of late — bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and keyboardist Jason Rebello — Beck collaborates with a trio of today’s finest female vocalists: Joss Stone, Imelda May and Olivia Safe.
Emotion & Commotion opens with a haunting take on “Corpus Christi Carol”, which was inspired by Jeff Buckley’s version. Its atmospheric alchemy blends Beck’s brand of passionate, precise playing with swelling strings to immediately produce the emotion to which the title refers. The commotion comes quickly too, as the next song, “Hammerhead”, channels Hendrix through Beck’s wah-wah pedal. “Never Alone” is a moody groove that sees Beck’s Strat sailing over synthesizer voices, before becoming the voice in a striking, altogether stunning, rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. Equally stunning is “I Put a Spell on You”, featuring Beck’s economical-but-bruising blues licks backing up Joss Stone’s best Etta James impression to date.
Soprano Olivia Safe lends lovely wordless vocalizations to the lush layers of “Serene”, which is as accurate a song title as one could ever imagine, sounding a bit like voyage across calm seas complete with gulls on the wing, wind in the sails and even sirens singing. Speaking of sirens, Imelda May captivates all listeners on “Lilac Wine”, a smoldering torch song that melts into Puccini’s aria “Nessun Dorma”, which proceeds to wring every last drop of emotion from Beck’s somber, understated soloing. Stone returns to belt out “There Is No Other Me”, a slow building, soulful rocker that stirs up a commotion once again before Safe’s voice and Beck’s guitar form an emotional duet, carrying us home with an electrifying “Elegy for Dunkirk” (from the film Atonement).
Naturally, any Jeff Beck release is going to showcase his chops, but Emotion & Commotion does more than that. It also perfectly highlights his diversity as an artist. Though the individual songs are quite different stylistically, it’s an incredibly cohesive album, with the tracks flowing together and melding effortlessly into a beautiful expression of Jeff Beck’s exploratory impulse.