Following a virtually albumless 90s he gives us his third album of high-wire...
Chris Jones 2003-06-20
Something strange has been happening to Jeff Beck. Rock's aristocracy, unlike jazzers or classical dudes, tend to be stuck in a cycle of diminishing returns. The older they get, the less challenging or groundbreaking their music becomes; rock guitarists doubly so. A look at Jeff Beck's contemporaries (Page, Clapton, Green et al) reveals either minimal activity or a willingness to hide in twelve-bar mediocrity. Not Jeff. Following a virtually albumless 90s he gives us his third album of high-wire virtuosity and electronic shenanigans in four years. What's more, he's never sounded more vital.
Whereas it's now common currency to team up with younger, hipper names to make the album appeal to a more fresh-faced demographic, Jeff has, seemingly, bothered to try something genuinely new with this release. Bringing in techno monkeys Apollo 440 as producers on two tracks (''Grease Monkey'', ''Hot Rod Honeymoon''), and experimentalist (and no mean fusion guitarist himself) David Torn on two more (''Plan B'', ''Line Dancing With Monkeys''), he's signalling that the forward-looking embrace of technological hard-edged grooves evinced on 1999's Who Else and the follow-up You Had It Coming was no simple flirtation with the modern. Jeff himself says he's: ''trying to come to terms with the fact that I didn't want to stop playing''. How he's done this is by finally finding a simpler template, mainly shorn of vocals, that allows him to shred the fretboard in 100 different ways in the space of one tune and, at the same time, make those noises count for something.
Jeff's other true love, the automobile, gets its customary look in with titles (the aforementioned tracks with Apollo 440) and voice samples (partly provided by Mrs Vic Reeves -Nancy Sorrell) and some of the speedier cuts on offer really do convey the spirit of hurtling metal along a race track. Strings squeal like tyres on blacktop. At other times Beck's sensitivity and tone brings tears to the eyes. ''JB's Blues'' is a lesson in taste while the closing ''Why Lord Oh Why'' (written by Tony Hymas) is a string-laden wonder. Most importantly this never ever sounds like a man who's desperately trying to keep up. These sheets of electronic noise at times aren't a million miles away from the so-called nu-jazz that's made Scandinavia such a hotbed of new talent.
A whole generation of axe-maulers have used Beck's flashy template as an excuse to disappear up their own flange pedals (we're talking Steve Vai, Joe Satriani etc. here), but most forget that Beck himself, even in his most self-indulgent fusion moments, always strove for something different. A true psychedelicist until the last, his youthful joy in making an unholy racket is only matched by his unimpeachable expertise. There's plenty of life in this old dog...