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“I’m the Enchanting Wizard of Rhythm,” Beck modestly proclaims on Odelay. “I came to tell you about the rhythms of the universe.” It’s the silliest moment on this non sequitur–prone artist’s follow-up to his 1994 hit, Mellow Gold, but it does say something about the sources he taps into and the shifts in his attitude since making that record. It’s a long way from the deadpan “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?” to the “heavy” claims of “Float On.”
Beck’s trademark mixing-and-matching goes even further on Odelay, which he co-produced with the Dust Brothers, who help render the disc almost as densely packed as Paul’s Boutique, their masterful collaboration with the Beastie Boys. Almost every track here is full of samples, shouts, acoustic guitars, feedback duels, and Beck’s home-grown (in a closet, I’d guess) wisdom.
Despite the flood of words, Beck seems this time to have focused his attention on constructing his groove-heavy crazy quilt. As enjoyable as lines like “I’m writin’ my will on a three-dollar bill” are, I miss the sustained perfection of Mellow Gold’s rhymes, which ducked the albatross of “Loser” generational-spokesmanhood with a combination of tall tales, resigned laments (“The drugs won’t kill your day job”), and hilarious nods to Dylan and Jagger. This time, he seems to be saying, the music itself is the message. And these collages are inspired: The opening “Devils Haircut” glues together a fuzz-tone riff from Them’s “I Can Only Give You Everything,” some dream-sequence soundtrack music, a funky electric piano, “Rawhide”-esque yells, falling-down-the-stairs jazz drumming, and Beck’s own deranged blues harp.
Elsewhere, Beck immerses himself in syncopated hard rock (“The New Pollution”), not to mention lots of slinky guitar, a bit of remarkably breezy pop (“Jack-Ass”) and more nostalgia for the early days of hiphop than anything this side of LL Cool J’s last album. If anything’s in short supply, it’s the cracked Appalachianisms that helped flavor Mellow Gold. But while Odelay isn’t as consistent as its Beasties template, its ever-shifting tones and layered goodies could keep you listening with fresh ears for a long time. The most intriguing surprise is the last song, “Ramshackle.” A hushed, troubled-sounding acoustic ballad with floatingly melodic overtones supplied by the great jazz bassist Charlie Haden, it suggests that Beck’s next experiment could find him in a laboratory much less suffused with archness.
Like Beck, Washington, D.C.–bred Me’Shell NdegéOcello has been listening to a lot of ’70s soul and funk; her new Peace Beyond Passion references Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly soundtrack, the Spinners’ “Mighty Love,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” Where Odelay is occasionally driven by sheer weirdness, though, NdegéOcello’s follow-up to her 1993 debut, Plantation Lullabies, trades in a different sort of audacity. Peace links the bisexual singer/writer/bassist’s romances with biblical imagery in an ambitious song cycle that touches on both physical and spiritual love as well as the many ways the spirit is threatened by intolerance. Although the effort isn’t wholly successful, it’s a welcome dare in a black-pop era when undernourished work like the new material on Michael Jackson’s HIStory attempts to pass itself off as conceptual triumph.
Peace Without Passion uses largely unembellished band-driven funk and occasionally softer sounds to put across its hard questions. Ironically, the most immediately accessible track, and the first single, seems guaranteed not to be widely programmed thanks to its title, “Leviticus: Faggot,” and subject matter. The story of a gay teen whose father throws him out of the house as his mother ineffectually wrings her hands and prays—and who eventually is killed in a hate crime—it’s much tougher-minded than anything gangsta rappers have put on tape in a long while.
“Mary Magdalene” ups the ante. The love cry of a “harlot”’s customer who proposes marriage, it evokes the relationship of Christ to the Magdalene. It’s with an almost mischievous glee that NdegéOcello sets its protagonist’s wish to “judge not so that I may not be judged” next to the album’s most explicit song of praise, “God Shiva.” Here, too, her impulse is to connect the romantic and the spiritual in a manner that conjures thoughts of Mavis Staples.
That impulse is carried on in “A Tear and a Smile,” an almost embarrassingly open (and Kahlil Gibran–inspired) declaration of desire. More effective are the silky “Stay” and the record’s most explicit link to the ’70s, a cover of Bill Withers’ “Who Is He and What Is He to You.” The plain-spokenness of the latter is a welcome corrective for some of NdegéOcello’s higher-flown expressiveness. Issues of clarity don’t appear to be her biggest worry, though, and some of Peace’s value is in its confusion. However, more of Withers’ style and less of Gibran’s might have brought this a step closer to being the truly great album NdegéOcello aims for.CP