Nerdboy is feeling frisky. Beck's "official" follow-up to the Grammy-winning, critic-pleasing Odelay sounds like what happens when the boy/man spends some time ruffling the sheets, playing Atari and watching Shaft. All at the same time.
This futuristic horniness is manifest in Beck's acoustic-blues-hip-hop, which this time around is accented by banjo, horns, soul vocals, and a bit of Neil Diamond posturing and Las Vegas shtick. Beck has been derided for his sense of irony and the way he mocks the music and culture (read: black) that he samples. But underneath his deadpan near-smirk and self-conscious breakdancing is also an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure (particularly world) music. The depth of his fandom informs Midnite Vultures' soulfulness.
Beck's debut, 1994's Mellow Gold, was his first commercial hit, and his appeal crossed demographics. Midnite Vulture has that same everywhere/nowhere vibe. He effortlessly references full-throttle funk, melodic alternative and sci-fi disco without relying too much on anything specific. And all of that with a beat so strong that white boys from Cleveland could probably dance to it.
Much was made of last year's Mutations, since it was not the official follow-up to 1996's Odelay. Compared with that record, Mutations was a modest commercial success. Its dark Beatles-influenced songs weren't in the same spirit of Odelay, but its signature sound was definitely Beck's.
Sampler Beck merges with Acoustic Guitar Beck on Midnight Vultures. Jumping off from the cut-and-paste samples that formed the foundation of Odelay, Beck twists Vultures into musical mumbo jumbo but with more focus. Live instrumentation brings everything together. And there's also an overarching theme: sex. From the opener, "Sexx Laws," to the closer, "Debra," over and over again, Beck is doing it all for the nooky.
Lyrically he touches upon, so to speak, tweaking nipples, satin sheets and grabbing ass. Couched in Moogs and horns, Beck doesn't sound like a lecher. Just a guy looking to get some, using the tools at his disposal. Anyone who doesn't laugh at the lyrics of "Debra" (e.g., "I wanna get with you, only you / And your sister. I think her name's Debra") needs to have his funny bone checked. (Is it tongue-in-cheek Barry White? or tongue-down-the-throat Barry White?)
Humor and sexuality are tampered with throughout the record. On "Mixed Bizness," Beck sings: "I'm mixing business with leather," a phrase repeated on "Hollywood Freaks." Hearing each song is like being hit on by the class clown: How seriously can you take him? Then there's his slightly anachronistic slang. Does anybody (aside from Flava Flav) still say "cold lampin'"? It all seems insincere, but the music washes away doubts. It's too damn funky.
Midnite was mostly produced without the Dust Brothers (who scratch on "Freaks" and produced "Debra"), the architects of Odelay. With Beck taking over, there is an elevated sense of confidence about Midnite Vultures. The guy's not a loser. He's probably the only cultural icon with the ability to single-handedly bring back '80s fashion. And -- oh, yeah -- he makes hip and sexy postmodern soul music.
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