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Beck
Mutations
(DGC)

Over the course of the half dozen or so albums Beck Hansen has released, on indie labels as well as for major DGC, what is emerging is the sound and thought of a truly visionary (albeit warped) artist. Don't be surprised if Beck turns out to be the most important musician of the very late Twentieth century. Let's face it: After the Beatles' reign in the Sixties, there are maybe a handful of artists or bands that have actually broken new ground in the simple world of rock and roll (and even the Fab Four started out lifting Chuck Berry and Little Richard riffs). Beck has been able to fuse four decades of musical history through his unique world view and come up with something one of a kind. You could even say Beck had it tougher than the Beatles if only because he came to the game so much later.

Like his brilliant 1996 album Odelay, certainly one of the finest (and most important) records released in the past twenty years, the aptly titled Mutations already has the aura of a classic, even though it's not really in the same league as its predecessor. What may be most impressive is that in this day of six-month recording schedules and painstaking overdubs, Mutations was recorded and mixed in only two weeks.

Mellowness pervades the disc. It is a moody album, ranging from melancholy to bemusement to wistfulness to quiet-storm passion. "Cold Brains" opens the record with appropriate ease, a watery bottom-end ebbing below acoustic guitar and harmonica as Beck delivers another batch of his trademark surreal lyrics ("I lay upon the gravel/A worm of hope"). It's a song that wouldn't seem misplaced on an early King Crimson album, though it's more fluid and less confrontational. "Nobody's Fault but My Own" is very Beatles-esque, the elongated vocal melody and atmospheric keyboards stepping casually over and under the taut, ringing, immutable sitar. The following cut, "Lazy Flies," is also reminiscent of the Beatles, the Spanish guitar and simple heavy drums suggesting a Revolver-era experiment. "Tropicalia," the first radio single, glides along a propulsive samba rhythm with seductive ease -- and a few well-placed horns. The Sixties Latin vibe fits perfectly with the faded past and broken hopes he enumerates in the lyric.

Throughout Mutations, Beck pushes himself vocally; there's more singing and expressive delivery of individual words than in his past work. "Bottle of Blues," one of the album's best songs, features one of Beck's finest vocal performances in which he sounds like an amalgam of Jim Morrison and The Kinks' Ray Davies. In this song his delivery bumps jauntily over the loose cantor and echoing high-plains guitar. It's an irresistible groove.

A few songs -- "Static," "Dead Melodies," and the Fifties slow-dance ballad "We Live Again" -- don't hold up to repeat listenings as well as the rest; they're not bad songs, and certainly not boring, but they lack the allure that most of the album, despite its mellow tenor, possesses. But even these few less impressive tracks can't detract from the the album's inventive charm.

-- Michael C. Harris

Uriah Heep
Classic Heep: An Anthology
(Mercury)

Uriah Heep has not done well since their heyday in the early Seventies. Later period reviews have been terrible and fans few. "The Heep" will most likely be remembered as little more than a footnote in hard rock history as the band who most inspired Spinal Tap. Uriah Heep continued releasing records well into the Eighties and Nineties, chewing through 30(!) members despite utter indifference from a changing public. Classic Heep: An Anthology spares us the sad, downward spiral. Instead, this two-CD collection rescues 30 tracks from the group's first nine albums, including tracks recorded before 1976.

The band's essential problem was vocalist David Byron (who died in 1985). When he sang straight he was fine, but more often than not he would ascend into painful histrionics, creating the sandpaper with which the Heep's abrasion rubbed. Byron almost makes Sammy Hagar seem refined. But underneath that difficult howl hid a pedestrian hard-rock group that occasionally kicked out the jams. Driven by organist Ken Hensley, the band's strident hard rock took on a menacing edge. "I'll Keep On Trying," from the first Heep album, Very 'eavy, Very 'umble (1970), noodles around in circles but also features some sharp rhythmic shifts. The churchlike sanctity of "July Morning," a ten-minute epic from Look at Yourself (1971), remains an idiosyncratic timepiece of early-Seventies intensity. The hits "Easy Livin'" and "Sweet Freedom" feature decent classic rock riffs but don't reveal the full spectrum of the band. The complete range, however, is fraught with difficulty. "Wonderworld," "Return to Fantasy," and "Footprints in the Snow" are musical experiments that never quite take. Hensley admits as much in the liner notes.

This is not timeless music; much of it isn't even good. But it stands in its own way, sometimes mocking in its seriousness, sometimes jesting in its overambitious instrumental passages. Taken with a grain of salt, Classic Heep: An Anthology re-creates that unusual and interesting time when hard rock was forming its molten core.

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