Beck: Morning Phase

Morning Phase may not be the out-and-out masterpiece that everyone says it is, but anytime we are blessed with a very-good Beck album, the world is all the richer because of it.


Morning Phase

Label: Capitol
US Release Date: 2014-02-25
UK Release Date: 2014-02-24
"When I started out playing small clubs, you could feel the room recoil from certain kinds of songs. Anything that was too personal, that had a sentiment to it, or was laying out your feelings, was immediately booed. People would start throwing things. And anything that was really provocative or humorous or radical was embraced or cheered. So that fostered in me a sort of mode of survival."

-- Beck, Billboard Cover Story (2014.4.14)

Beck may be one of the most prolific musicians of the past decade, which is actually a pretty funny statement when you realize he hasn't released an album proper since 2008.

After finishing up his Interscope contract with the dry Danger Mouse-produced disc Modern Guilt, Beck then proceeded to create the Record Club, wherein he and his fellow musician friends tore through famous cult classics almost entirely from memory, after which he helped produce some songs to Jamie Lidell's album, dropped off a classical piece for a Philip Glass tribute, unleashed a songbook of brand-new compositions simply called Song Reader, donated an excellent song to the Twilight Saga: Eclipse soundtrack, wrote a bunch of original tunes for Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, produced Charlotte Gainsbourg's excellent 2009 disc IRM, and even wound up releasing three standalone singles himself in 2013 (the best of which, "I Won't Be Long", could've easily fit on Modern Guilt without a soul complaining). There was no promise or hint at of any new album: just the sound of Beck having some damn fun without any sense of obligation to put something out -- he was going at his own pace.

So while some interviews with Beck's friends and collaborators revealed that the notorious musical mastermind had no less than four full-length albums worth of material ready to go at a moment's notice, Beck wasn't really feeling things until he called up virtually all of his collaborators from his 2002 breakup classic Sea Change for an album of songs that were somewhat in the same vein. Now, after years of waiting, Morning Phase is here... and it sounds a lot like Sea Change. In fact, opening song "Morning" keeps Sea's same drum stylings, the same simplistic guitar strums, and even those exact same Godrich-y keyboard plinks that so defined Sea Change's sonic palette. While Beck has repeatedly said that Morning Phase isn't a direct sequel to Sea Change, there are numerous times on this disc where he weakens his own argument.

That being said, although both albums bear intense textural similarities, what ultimately separates them is the tone and intention. Sea Change was Beck at his most Pagliacci, pop music's prankster clown showing how he really has the feels underneath it all, but what was most stunning was how he pared down his songcraft to its most bare, the lyrics clean and direct where previously they were lost in absurdism and simile. He certainly dropped hints prior about how well he was able to articulate melancholy, but Sea Change was a classic breakup album, so many of the songs being covered within months of their being released, that disc connecting with a near universal mindset of longing and self-pity.

What Morning Phase does differently is that there is a bit of hope tacked on to the intention of each song, a bit of sunshine baked deep inside Beck's echoing voice. The quietly propulsive "Heart Is a Drum" sounds closer to a Beth Orton number than it does a Beck tune, but it plays well with its sense of uplift. "Say Goodbye" is a prime example of how the albums differ, as lyrically it comes off as more hopelessly romantic than romantically hopeless, the narrator going after the girl who leaves him even as he envisions the exact words she'll say to him before she leaves. His voice is stretched out into a mournful echo time and time again, and although a bit repetitious, it does show that Mr. Hansen has this whole aural catharsis thing down to formula.

Yet an effective formula dulls without a modicum of diversity infused into it, and so while the phaser-fed pianos of "Unforgiven" provide a nice tonal variation, songs like "Turn Away" and "Blackbird Chain" begin to feel a bit like Morning Phase is lapping itself. The tracklist is made in such a way that there isn't anything too similar-sounding rubbing up against each other, but if you're listening to the album out of order, there are more than a few cases where tracks may very well bleed together.

None of this should detract from the fact that these are some solid songs all around, but a lush, gorgeous album such as this unfortunately does not have the same dramatic pull as Sea Change or Blood on the Tracks or any number of good breakup albums do. With discs such as those, there is an obvious goal of catharsis, achieved through humor or lyrical self-flagellation or any number of means. An album of generally hopeful promises, while still good, does not carry with it the same level of direct impact. This is not the fault of Beck at all -- all of his albums have different endgames -- but when evoking the sonic landscape of a previously album so deliberately without achieving the same level of impact, it's hard to not feel that something is missing from the equation.

However, those seeking Sea Change's hit-you-in-the-gut level of mourning can still find it: the lavish strings on "Wave" threaten to break out into "Pyramid Song" at any given moment, but their cinematic scope help bevy the minor-key melody into something that can only be called "elegant dread", Beck letting an outside force overtake him completely: "If I surrender / and I don't fight this wave / No I won't go under / I'll only get carried away." He finishes the song by simply singing the word "isolation" over and over again, which would actually be a self-pitying parody of Beck's own dramatic poses were it not so darn effective.

The closing track "Waking Light" starts out as a Carole King-styled piano ballad, but before long it dives fully into Beck's lush, all-encompassing production, several distorted ooh's at the end achieving some real appoggiatura, Beck singing that "Day is gone on a landslide of rhythm / It's in your lamplight burning low." Morning Phase very much burns low, differing from Sea Change in notable ways while at the exact same time robbing that album of so many textures, ideas, and poses that Beck's own claims of this disc not being a sequel to Sea Change prove to be downright laughable. Morning Phase may not be the out-and-out masterpiece that everyone says it is, but anytime we are blessed with a very-good Beck album, the world is all the richer because of it.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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