Beck Hansen's latest personality is his best joke yet, as this gawky-yet-funky white boy makes himself over as a smooth-talking, hard-partying sex machine, accompanied by the live equivalent of the Dust Brothers' waxploitation soundtracks. Hiding behind gibberish less often than on previous releases, Beck tries to make it clear that he's one of the biggest "Hollywood Freaks" on the scene, a gold-plated playa who "want[s] to know what makes you scream" so he can "be your $20 million fantasy." Or something like that.
His longtime backing band is in tow to escort Beck on his trip through "hot dogs, No-Doz, and hot sex in back rows," including erstwhile R.E.M. drummer Joey Waronker and Tom Waits guitarist Smokey Hormel. In a way, their presence makes Midnite Vultures the perfect combination of 1996's Odelay and last year's Mutations: The band takes a crack at cut-and-paste collages the Dust Brothers constructed on Odelay. Meaning, the horn section is real, and it's really trying to sound like one from the '60s and '70s. Beck pitches in as well, playing guitar, piano, vocoder, synthesizers, bass and harmonica at various points. But the instrument he's best at playing is his own voice, tweaking it to fit each song. At times, Beck mutates his vocals beyond unrecognizable: Play "Debra" for someone and see whether they're able to recognize the tortured falsetto. He does it so well, it's hard to tell whether the song is a spoof of the let's-get-it-on bedroom-rap genre or a complete commitment to it. Likely, it's both.
More than half of Midnite Vultures' tracks support Beck's newfound strut, from "Mixed Bizness" and "Nicotine & Gravy" to "Get Real Paid" and "Peaches & Cream," all of which could have sprung from Prince's Dirty Mind. Mostly, Midnite Vultures takes the James Brown and the JBs' live act to its logical conclusion. But Beck doesn't stop there: "Hollywood Freaks" one-ups Dr. Dre's Tanqueray-spilling-on-the-tape slickness, and Beck even nails the delivery, falling somewhere between the drunken style of Ol' Dirty Bastard and Snoop Dogg's smoked-out flow. (Of course, with lyrics like "Hot like a cheetah/Neon mamacita/Pop rockin' beats from Korea," it's all Beck Hansen.) And all of a sudden, a song such as "Beautiful Way" appears out of nowhere, which imagines that one of the Beach Boys is the new Sweetheart of the Rodeo. (More likely, it's Beth Orton, who contributes ba-ba-back-ups.) That's followed by "Pressure Zone," which comes off like a collaboration by Devo, Joe Jackson, and a team of Foley artists. It just shows that the only thing you can expect from Beck at this point is pure genius. -- Zac Crain
If the fall and failure of Britpop prompted an abrupt sobering-up among hard-core Anglophiles, the rise and spread of Scotchrock is reason for popping the champagne corks anew. It's almost a cliché to cite young talents such as Belle & Sebastian, Arab Strap, Mogwai, Magoo, et al., but it's true: There's something in the Glasgow water supply.
The Delgados, formed about three years ago and already veterans of the typical UK press hype for their debut album Domestiques and a slew of singles-of-the-week, weigh in with a sophomore effort that won't break the home team's winning streak. Centered on the alternating vocals of Emma Pollack and guitarist Alun Woodward, but sporting a democratic, integrated groop sound, the Delgados craft a mixture of lush, neotraditionalist pop and more outrageous garagey/New Wavey rock that just gets better with each listen. From the subtle Spanish (flamenco) inflections of "The Actress" (which finds Pollack warbling in her finest Liz Phair-meets-Hope Sandoval tone of sarcastic apprehension), to the grand, Tindersticks-like waltz of "Don't Stop" (Woodward murmuring tentatively, reassuringly, like a lover about to reach out in caress), to the baroque surf of "Everything Goes Around the Water" (both singers playing off one another as if they were Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley doing their best Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra impersonations), this is a wholly accomplished recording, full of nuance and brimming with hue. The Delgados flesh out their basic guitar-bass-drums setup with violins, cellos, flutes, samples of nature sounds, and quirky tape edits (wait until you hear the dizzying effects in "Blackpool" -- the song sounds like a Jefferson Airplane lysergic dream) to convey a larger-than-life impression. Paradoxically, Peloton feels close and intimate, and it's that very tension that keeps you coming back to the album. -- Fred Mills
A Ma Zone
It sometimes takes some acclimating before A Ma Zone makes its intentions clear. Like watching the first 15 minutes of Trainspotting, you have to get used to the accents and unfamiliar intervals, be they Scottish junkie patois or the Afro-European sounds of Zap Mama. The lyrics may intersperse French and Swahili with English, but the heavily percussive music is very familiar -- with enough Western melodies and rhythms to be exotic, but not completely foreign. Hip-hop's reliance on sampling and overlaying different, often dissonant melodies has helped train pop listeners to appreciate music that doesn't always follow traditional melodies. Guidepost from the rap world, guests Speech and Black Thought and Ahmir Thompson of the Roots, bring more than a little hip-hop and R&B vibe to Mama's fourth album.
Coupled with the European pop and African melodies and rhythms, it's world music for an Internet world -- immediate and unassuming. Their presence -- Speech on one song, the Roots guys on two others -- also lends a deep timbre to the all-female vocal lineup, adding another layer to the complex grooves.
Zap Mama began nine years ago as an a cappella group, and the interweaving of vocals is still the group's strength. Head Mama Marie Daulne is a world beat all by herself, Belgian by way of Zaire and Central Africa; as a singer she mixes warm soulfulness, breathy whispers and staccato, wordless chirps to create something between Lauryn Hill, Sade, and Björk. Heady, but deserved company.
On "Call Waiting," Daulne audibly inhales and exhales twice before singing over a faint phone dialing and rumbling keyboards. The pause adds a weird tension, expecting her to sing and having to wait, but soon a drum 'n' bass beat slides in. With a jazzy upright bass punching in and out of the mix, the track takes off. Her voice rising above it all, Daulne remains the focus because of her intensity, which she maintains even when quietly backing down.
When Daulne and drummer Stéphane Galland get into a duel of snare roll and her quick cadenced, "you and me and me and you," the singer falters at the end, dropping a beat before gliding back into the chorus. It's a minor dramatic moment, but it shows how much control she has over her instrument, using it to build and ease tension. Moments like that show the greatness of Zap Mama; they may be slightly alien, but they have worldwide appeal. -- David Simutis