Music for people who like doing nothing
How are you spending your summer vacation? Ever since students have entered grade school, the question has plagued them, and every time you meet that friend you haven’t seen since the end of Reunions last year it comes back to haunt you. Did you spend it rock climbing or sunbathing on the beach with your eyes closed? Did you travel the world seeing rare and amazing natural wonders that have yet to be rivaled by mankind, or did you sit in your basement watching movies and celebrating boredom?
Blocked Numbers, the debut album by Seattle pop band The Crystal Skulls, caters almost exclusively to the latter category: the lazy people who need a sound for their long afternoons. I keep telling myself that this is the sort of comment to damn any album to every record store’s $2 bin (and I would be lying if I said I hadn’t seen any copies lying in bargain boxes), but at the same time I’ve listened to the album an inordinate amount over the past few days. The Skulls are languid. They make pop with hooks which can’t be recalled if you’re asked to repeat them five minutes after you stop listening. There’s a nice little bell-like guitar riff at the start of the first track, after which drums, bass, and frontman Christian Wardo’s voice come in and the album becomes a blur for the next 30 minutes. Wardo sings like Julian Casablancas at his most laid back, and the combination of fuzzed guitar, drums, and bass bouncing along at a steady pace contributes to the feel of the Skulls as jaded and tired. But again, this isn’t your street-smart-young-punk jaded, this is your old-man-sitting-on-his-front-porch-being-bored jaded. This is music to do nothing to. It’s music to do homework to. It’s music for when you want to listen to rock, but don’t want to worry about spontaneously jumping up and doing an air-guitar solo.
The mechanics of the Skulls are classic. The repeated chorus and guitar strumming on “Every Little Bit,” the melancholy of Wardo’s lover’s plight on “Airport Motels,” the piano on “Weak Spot” – it all gels with a classic rock heritage of easy listening and 70s rock. The band claims to descend in part from The Smiths, but beyond an air of sadness, there’s nothing that Morrissey or Johnny Marr would lay claim to. But neither would they dislike the soft party of “Hard Party” as it chugs along. Wardo wants us to sit back and enjoy ourselves. And in summer, perhaps that really isn’t a bad thing. Still, the rhythmic change up on “Away From Home,” the closing track, is my favorite part of the whole album. Yet just moments after we hit the pick up, the band stops —terrified of breaking out of their rut? Come back, Crystal Skulls. Come back with an album that maintains your sound but elaborates on these tattered edges of development, and we’ll have a long and beautiful relationship.
Out with the new, and in with the old
Beck’s charm is his unpredictability. He rants like a laconic madman over strange instrumentals on each of his albums, but always he chooses a different idiom. You have the dying folk singer of Sea Change, the crazy MC of Mellow Gold, and the futuristic bossa nova of Mutations. And there is the definitive Beck of Odelay, a bit of each of the above categories, and wedded to the eclectic excess of Dust Brothers production; where else does one find a sample of a singer asking his audience to say “Jordache”?
The problem with Guero, Beck’s latest album, is that it represents a calculated decision to return to the glory days of his youth. Beck has gotten back together with the Dust Brothers to try and create another majestic sample-o-rama in the vein of Odelay. On the surface, this is not a terrible thing: Beck the wandering artist has roamed the musical field, trying everything possible with his myriad of talents, but now he’s seen the light and – hallelujah! – returned home to the Dust Brothers, who will combine their production with the music of an older, wiser Beck to create a new masterpiece. While it sounds good, this idealistic goal falls apart when it becomes clear that for every track attempting to surpass Odelay, there is one that blatantly plagiarizes from it. And even if this theft from his own work is unintentional, Beck’s choice in marketing Guero as a “return” to Odelay forces the listener to mentally compare the two. To claim that Guero is bad hardly does it any justice: it’s a very decent album with several strong tracks. Yet at its worst the record is bland, and even some of the stronger songs are tempered by a feeling of their being derivative.
The very first track on Guero is “E-Pro,” and as soon as the immense, fuzzed guitar riff kicks in, you sense the problem: this track will never be thought of as anything but a skewed mirror of “Devil’s Haircut,” which opened Odelay in an almost-identical-yet-highly-superior fashion. There’s nothing bad about “E-Pro,” it’s rather catchy, but… why bother? The trend continues in hints on other tracks: “Qué Onda Guero” has samples of a random Hispanic sample thrown in similar to the background voices in “High 5 (Rock The Catskills),” “Hell Yes” wants to be some kind of amalgamation of “Where It’s At” and “Hotwax,” and “Rental Car” has frenetic peppy singers à la “New Pollution”‘s intro, which is directly imitated on “Girl.” Each time one starts to relax, it’s as if Beck leans into your ear and whispers “Odelay!” Why, man, why? I know you’re good, so stop bothering me.
After getting past the hints of Odelay, it is possible to judge the music for itself. It’s too bad that the Dust Brothers have given up on inundating the listener with samples (Oh! The wanton excesses of youthful production!), or that Beck has lost some of his lyrical bizarreness (Oh! The wanton excesses of youthful songwriters!), but that doesn’t mean they’ve failed to make some nice music. Just as experience has taught the Dust Brothers to refrain from fifty samples per song, Beck’s forays into different genres have left their mark on him both stylistically and lyrically. The lyrics indicate that aging has filled him with a terrible world weariness (“I prayed heaven today / bring its hammer down on me,” “The good in us is all we know / there’s too much left to taste that’s bitter,” and more), while musically he draws heavily on the bossa nova sound of Mutations for several of the tracks – notably the relaxing melancholy of “Earthquake Weather” and “Missing.” “Girl” is an incredible, speedy summer-pop piece that I wish had been released as the album’s lead single – it might have changed the entire perception of the album as longing for Odelay (instead “E-Pro,” with its macked guitar riff, was chosen). Besides “Broken Drum,” which is a bit too slow and ponderous of a doomed-love ballad for its own good, Beck pulls off the Sea Change era folk-mournfulness quite reasonably on four of the tracks, and here the spastic Dust Brothers production pays off in accentuating the differences between them. Midnight Vultures is sorely missed, but Beck is apparently still too sad to try for shellacked joy.
We all grow up, and this album is proof of it. Since Odelay, Beck and the Dust Brothers have grown as artists, and they can never return to the path they once trod. Eclecticism has been toned down on this outing – as if the only reason for heavy sampling is to remind the listener that they once had a lot of fun with this kind of thing. Nonetheless, they have put together a decent if sad pop album. Give it a few weeks in your turntables, then plunder the best cuts for mix CDs and move on. Packed in with the too-generic tracks of other artists, the Beck we know and love starts to show his face once again; the saddest thing about Guero is that Beck is no longer crazy – he’s crazy in relative terms.