July 18, 2008
Calmer chameleon. Manchester Apollo (June 2)
What’s happened to Beck? Throughout the ’90s, his restless shape-shifting shtick – sardonic folk-hop slacker one minute, boyish boho trouabour the next, with a stint as a Prince-channelling funk slut – kept us dazzled and exhilarated. Now it seems like alt.pop’s most compelling chameleon is content to stay grey. Tonight he ambles sulkily onstage like a teenager who’s just been turfed out of bed and told to play some songs or risk having his World Of Warcraft account terminated. With his outsized plaid shirt, shoulder-length straw hair and Christmas cracker-gift shades, he looks like a bad Dead Ringers impression of Kurt Cobain. If this is what Scientology does to you, we want our money back.
A bracing opening blast of ‘Devils Haircut’ is promising, but Beck’s band process every song in his set with the same brash efficiency, whether it’s the lolloping lounge groove of ‘The New Pollution’ or the desolate ennui of ‘Lost Cause’. ‘Girl’, flimsy on record, benefits from this no-nonsense roughhousing, but most of the other songs have the character systematically drained from them.
Ironically, new album ‘Modern Guilt’ is Beck’s best for a while, but he makes little effort to summon its plangent psychedelic plumes here. Only a dense, hypnotic ‘Chemtrails’ gives a fair indication of the album’s heady pleasures. There are pleasing Jack White squeals on ‘Soul Of A Man’ and a taut Anglophile strut to the title track to complement his female guitarist’s dapper two-tone get-up, but ‘Walls’ and ‘Orphans’ are turgid. A cover of ’80s soft-rock staple ‘Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime’ is an already dreary song, played drearily.
There’s no breakdancing, no leafblower, no puppets, no DJ snapping records in half and scratching them across his bare chest. OK, most of Beck’s songs should be good enough to fly without recourse to his old gimmicks, but even if he just wants to play straight-up garage rock, he at least needs to do it with conviction.
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