Recordings

Beck
Mutations
(DGC Records)

When did the release of a new record start to be treated like an election campaign? Consider that the press dubbed November 17 Super Tuesday simply because Garth, Mariah and Whitney were all moving product that day. Even more surreal, a few days later, Garth Brooks stood behind a podium and acknowledged his first-week victory as though he'd just swept half a dozen presidential primaries.

Much the same tone surrounded the November 3 release of new albums by Beck and Alanis Morissette. A Billboard magazine piece the following week suggested Beck erred when he decided to go head-to-head with the thankful Canadian. One record-store owner, with apparent pity for Beck, said that at the end of the day on November 3, he'd sold only one copy of Mutations, while Alanis' album had practically sold out. Of course, left unconsidered in all this strategic kibitzing is that this may be just the way Beck planned it.

Unlike Morissette, Beck has never been an infatuation junkie, and neither does he seem addicted to mass adulation. If anything, Mutations comes across as the classic attempt to lower expectations after a big seller. In fact, its modest scope--and the fact that much of this material has been gathering dust for a few years--has caused Beck to deny that Mutations is a true follow-up to the 1996 masterwork Odelay.

This is a semantic argument for more advanced minds than mine, but the key point about Mutations is that it reinforces what a one-of-a-kind, postmodern phenomenon this scrawny iconoclast is. Who else can craft a sample-heavy, cut-and-paste wonder like Odelay and also feel equally at ease bashing out a live-band album like Mutations in only two weeks? Who else can be compared to the Dust Brothers and Woody Guthrie in the same sentence?

Because Mutations was recorded in a traditional fashion, it's easy to file the album under the category of roots-rock, but Beck can never be pinned down that easily. The carefree "Tropicalia" explores his latent interest in bossa nova, while the gorgeously tuneful "Dead Melodies" is harpsichord-driven chamber pop of the kind that The Kinks patented in the late '60s. Even when he gets rustic, as with the twangy "Bottle of Blues," he gives it a typically irreverent spin: "Holding hands with an impotent dream/In a brothel of fake energy."

Beck's such an effortless eclectic that some people can't help but be suspicious of him. But he's the best evidence we've got that a sonic visionary, surrealist poet and traditional songwriter can co-exist in the same body. Unlike Odelay, Mutations doesn't try to exhibit the full range of his talents. It just lets the songwriter come out to play for a few minutes, and we're all the better for it.

--Gilbert Garcia

Various artists
Hempilation 2: freetheweed
(Capricorn Records)

By definition, benefit albums succeed in direct proportion to the caliber of celebrity they attract. Were that the only criterion for success, Hempilation 2 would be a runaway hit; it boasts every pro-pot celeb this side of Woody Harrelson and trails only those oppressed Tibetans as a lightning rod for righteous celebrity activism.

Throw in a jam-happy record label and the sponsorship of stoner bible High Times magazine and NORML, and you'd appear to have a can't-miss project. Too bad they forgot to include good music (if I were guessing, I'd chalk it up to short-term memory loss). While big-name stars are well-represented (George Clinton, Willie Nelson, Spearhead), along with some interesting and unlikely smaller names (Letters to Cleo, Vic Chesnutt, Blue Mountain), the common thread in most of these songs--aside from the obvious one--is surprisingly staid, uninspired music.

Clinton's lethargic, Snoop-inspired contribution sounds like detritus from an earlier session; Nelson's "Paul and Me" is likewise uncompelling; and the Long Beach Dub All Stars' cover of the dance-hall standard "Under Mi Sensi" is an out-and-out disappointment from a group whose paeans to pot were excellent when it was known as Sublime.

Vic Chesnutt gets extra points for "Weed (to the Rescue)," which is not just about marijuana, but about medical marijuana. But it isn't enough to save Hempilation 2 from the slew of overlong, meandering duds that don't seem to have much direction or even a clear sense of purpose. Given their inspiration, maybe that shouldn't be surprising.

--Joshua Green

Gilby Clarke
Rubber
(Pavement Music)

You can't fault the new farm for milking a cash cow: "EX-GUNS-N-ROSES GUITAR HERO" reads the big yellow sticker on this latest Gilby Clarke release, a ploy that will move considerable units in Japan, where big American rock is still steadily consumed.

It would probably serve this collection more accurately if it also read "EX-CANDY GUITAR HERO" and drew a direct lineage to Clarke's power-pop days in Candy instead of just his brief, Axl folly past. Rubber's flexible, something-for-anybody approach might madden some, but ensures six-string fans a well-rounded picture of Clarke's diversity.

Like at a racist Denny's, it's the Anglophiles who get served first with the Mellotroned--yet never mellow--"Kilroy Was Here" and "The Haunting." You feel like you're hearing Jellyfish with all the silliness slapped outta them. Then heavy metalists and anyone who had a hard-on for Billy Squier get "Something's Wrong With You" to beat their fists on Mason Jar tables to. Like his Gn'R predecessor Izzy Stradlin, Clarke shares a fondness for Exile on Main Street chug without the horns--witness "Sorry I Can't Write a Song About You" (penned with ex-Candy writing partner Johnathan Daniels) and a full-blown remake of "Mercedes Benz," wherein Clarke grabs votes on his Joe Walsh-for-the-'90s platform.

Continuing Clarke's attempts to fashion Ziggy rock-star anthems from the original Ronson blueprints, he caps off the CD with "Frankie's Planet," with lyrics frivolous and devotional enough to be mistaken for Bolanese. With end-of-the-century panic setting in everywhere, you can hardly blame Clarke for partying like it's 1971.

--Serene Dominic

 
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