While the hype already has begun on Midnite Vultures, Beck's new major-label effort, understanding Los Angeles's premier boho boychild-cum-mack-daddy is sharpened considerably by listening to a less high-profile release, the concurrent CD reissue of Golden Feelings. (If you'd like to score a copy, act fast: This edition, available only via parasol.com, allegedly is limited to 2000 copies.) Released in the spring of 1993, when Beck was known as the loser mowing lawns instead of the guy responsible for "Loser," Golden Feelings was put out on Sonic Enemy, a tiny cassette-only label, hand-dubbed for love (tape-only efforts are far from lucrative). Listened to back-to-back, the two albums show Beck's revisitation and appropriation of black music tropes have been almost systematic, moving from the clearly-not-Anthology of American Folk Music-worthy folk of his earliest recordings to the hipster pop of Mellow Gold, to the electrofunk and winking slow jams of today.
Golden Feelings' seventeen, largely undifferentiated tracks are rife with fragmentary yelps of white noise, odd edits, and muffled rambling. Beck's naturally resonant yaw is pitch-shifted down a notch into a mush-mouthed slur. In its own way the record fits well into the field-recording tradition, catching the artist at a raw, unguarded moment. In this case one can imagine Beck living in his shed, knocking these numbers out without a care. All told the collection is most valuable as an archaeological survey of his minor years, but occasionally it does hit pay dirt. The weird, repetitive a cappella of "Special People" has an undeniable, idiot savant charm; "Gettin' Home," a gentle, bluesy rag, gives one the sense that Beck has more than a little respect for the traditions he takes on with such inimitably awkward, tongue-in-cheek proficiency. Still, he was more successful in exploring this territory with a loose, indie slop twist on 1994's One Foot in the Grave, making Golden Feelings necessary only for fervent fans and completists.
Midnite Vultures is wonderful from start to finish, and seems tailored for literally anybody, adding the sounds of smooth soul, R&B, and hyped-up funk to Beck's accomplished genre splice of altrock and hip-hop (not to mention throwing dancing banjos and twanging pedal steel into the mix). It's possible that some will view his well-crafted retrospective of twentieth-century black pop as a Hollywood minstrel show, but that would be ignoring further strides the man has made. While earlier albums plunged an innocent Beck into irony's dark hard heart, by now he's figured out just what he cares about: namely, the multiculti culture clash that is L.A. Previously he seemed ill at ease with the city's lack of cohesion, and this was reflected in disconnected lyrics and a tense flow. On 1998's Mutations Beck sang about cold brains, dead melodies, and a bottle of blues. Somewhere between then and now, however, he's learned to love L.A., its perversities and its contradictions. Midnite Vultures features gleeful Hollywood freaks, broken sex laws, James Brown breaks, and horny horns. And then there's his wonderfully dumb troika of joy: "Nicotine & Gravy"; "Peaches & Cream"; "Milk & Honey." If you're keeping track, that's decline and decay to cheeky vice and quasi-Biblical ecstasy in less than a year.
In the final equation, going from the dross of Golden Feelings to the undeniable gloss of Midnite Vultures, one wonders whether Beck's evolution from an eccentric East L.A. kid into a mythically mock superstar is an example of a supreme talent finding its level at multiplatinum success, or the story of a lucky punk who merely used the capital allowances, studio time, and goodwill granted by a fluke hit to nice effect. Then again, you could ask the same questions of the Beatles. Yes, the comparison is undeniably hyperbolic, but the way Beck has used stardom's privileges is irrefutable: He got ebony and irony under his command. -- Alec Hanley Bemis
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Your taste for Bill Laswell's collection and "reconstruction" of various Cuban sounds, Imaginary Cuba, will depend entirely on your taste for the patented sonic stamp that the producer, bassist, and self-described "mix-translator" affixes to nearly all his musical projects. Imaginary Cuba stands as a virtual journey through various Afro-Cuban percussion tracks, street singing, and strummed tres melodies, with more than a healthy helping of Laswell's familiar ambient-wash production. Although the disc gathers performances by Cuban musicians such as Frank Emilio, Septeto Nacional, and Los Ibellis, it's less a various-artists compilation than a DJ mix, complete with added production and beats that seamlessly move each track into the next.
There are moments when Laswell's production takes him to some interesting territory, as on the four "Habana Transmission" tracks, on which he layers breakbeats, dub bass lines, and hip-hop snare drums underneath washes of Afro-Cuban percussion and forcefully plucked tres guitar parts. But his indelible stamp and production values are also a double-edged sword, and there are plenty of moments where the union of more complex rhythmic elements of Afro-Cuban music and Laswell's more straightforward funk beats seem forced. On tracks like "Chacon and Daniel," where he squeezes a dub bass line behind intricately woven percussion and tres riffs, the Cuban elements take on the aura of window dressing, and it's almost as if he seems intent on producing a disc that could be titled "Bill Laswell makes Cuban music sound like ... Bill Laswell!"
Moments on this record that are also a bit baffling: It's unclear what an old piano plunking out "Stars Fell on Alabama" (here titled "Loungin with F.E.") has to do with Cuba, unless we're meant to infer from the waves of echo and reverb that it was recorded in the grand old ballroom of a crumbling Havana hotel.
In the end Imaginary Cuba works best as one producer's vision of the marriage between Afro-Cuban music and his own already-developed sound. Those who are relatively new to Cuban music or more accustomed to the electronic-based sounds Laswell usually trades in may find this a bold experiment in musical fusion with some interesting Cuban spices. Other listeners, particularly those familiar with the various Cuban styles touched on or hinted at here, will probably just find it pretentious. -- Ezra Gale