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You don’t need Prince’s heavy breathing and synth massages to know that Midnite Vultures is Beck’s millennial sex-funk album, but they’re in there anyway. Beck explores the sex underworld by using funk—be it P-funk or G-funk or any other brand—as a way to get beneath the sheets, into the hot tubs and the backs of Mercedeses.
Beck wants his to be an unorthodox statement, not merely Madonna’s let’s-get-nasty stuff or Prince’s narcissism, but a more voyeuristic snapshot of us in our fin de siecle underwear. His treatise, captured in the chorus “I want to defy/The logic of all sex laws,” gives us a rough idea of where he’s going, and it’s not an endorsement of bestiality. Rather, it’s an effort to play with ridiculous popular notions of sex by making them even sillier. He looks through the lenses of ’70s funk freakishness and contemporary R&B at our society’s sex obsession—and smashes them out on the dance floor.
“Sexx Laws,” the most purely Stax/Volt-influenced number, opens Vultures before the record drops us into Beck’s neo-nasty zone, which requires a French kiss to every genre known for a badass groove. He’s “mixing business with leather” (“Mixed Bizness”) all over Vultures, and the results are dangerously close to genius.
This is the album that the soul brother in Beck almost had to make. About a year ago, the other Beck released Mutations, which advanced his more serious folk-pop strain through his able touring rock band. Mutations (supposedly recorded in a week) matched his free-associative lyric style (which at worst recalls Donovan at his worst) with naturalistic accompaniment, and Nigel Godrich (Radiohead’s OK Computer) honed its stellar sonics. Mutations’ “Cold Brains” and “Tropicalia” were worthwhile but hardly revealed a new Beck. It was the same outsider—the one who had paid his dues on both coasts, strumming at early-’90s Lower East Side folk gigs and knocking out the neo-Delta blues One Foot in the Grave for K Records. That Beck mounted incisive, veiled critiques while watching everything crumble and fall around him. It’s impressive, but not as awe-inspiring as critical accolades rained on it a year ago suggested. In the end, Mutations aspires to be a heavy record, but it just isn’t.
When it comes to entertaining, Beck the faux b-boy, the ascot-wearing showman, the near-slapsticker who emerged from 1996’s untouchable Odelay, is the better-bet Beck. Via the Dust Brothers’ production, he described a declining, confused moment in post-grunge freefall in “Where It’s At” and “Devil’s Haircut.” Odelay is really the first successful cut ‘n’ paste hiphop-rooted pop album, the full realization of the possibilities that the Beasties’ oddball Paul’s Boutique opened up. He rose from the one-hit wonder, alterna-geek status of “Loser” to become one of the blessed few indie-rockers gone gold with his cred more or less intact.
Here he comes again…the loser, tricked-out, hot-pink Beck, the one who’s open to any and all influences: Slow jams, old- and new-school funk, R&B (classic or schlock), Roberta Flack, Kool & the Gang, Roxy Music, Cameo, and the Ohio Players all ooze from Vultures, yet it’s never a sample-fest. Which is amazing, considering that Vultures wasn’t made in a week but actually labored over for 14 months in L.A. with extensive computer editing. (Some songs are bits of three songs chopped and then fused together.) Vultures, like a lot of funk, is built on repetitive, sticky bass lines and elementary but fat drum beats. The keyboard gurgles, synth drums, and soul-styled crooning put the warm icing on the cake.
“Get Real Paid” utilizes a vacant female vocal and Kraftwerklike analog-synth gurgles, but maintains the funk. “Hollywood Freaks” finds Beck cutting up (this time reunited with the Dust Brothers) about “hot milk,” “evaporated meats,” “automatic bazooti,” and “Norman Schwarzkopf.” Fill in the blanks. It’s Beck’s dig at the party people; he sounds like Bowie dishing the inside dirt without getting specific. He’s a one-man Def Comedy Jam cruising L.A. in a loaded-up limousine. He crawls up inside a G-funk video scenario complete with an X-rated afterparty.
“Peaches & Cream” may be Beck’s most Princelike concoction. It is Prince a la mode. He pulls off a sweet falsetto and then goes gospel-delic, singing, “Keep your lamplight trimmed and burning.” “Broken Train” picks up where Odelay’s “The New Pollution” left off, though, rather than taking mod London as its reference, it’s another Tropicaliaesque Brazilian club groove. The freak-friendly slow jam “Debra” might owe a debt to Al Green—as well as to Teddy Pendergrass and to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” Beck’s soul styling reaches absurd, hilarious heights.
Vultures, unlike so many rock records (especially indie-rock records) these days, doesn’t sound simply like a rock band basking in found black influences. Rather, Beck is betting (correctly) that nearly everyone will get a kick out of hearing him “get funky,” pose sexy, and blur racial lines—not only because he’s got a knack for freshness but because that’s precisely where he’s the most preposterous, and we’re the most curious. CP