Wait Till The 'Midnite' Hour

I can tell you just when and where I first heard Beck's "Loser" (1994, 3 a.m., car radio, back road in East Hartford, N.Y.) and just what I thought: who in God's name is this? Delta slide guitar, crude hip-hop drum track, a white guy rapping in a burnout's drawl about "cocaine nose jobs" or something, tossing off such asides as "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" and "Get crazy with the Cheez Whiz." I pulled over and wrote down the refrain ("I'm a loser, baby,/so why don't you kill me?"), on the chance that I could track the thing down. It was suddenly the only song I wanted to hear.

"Loser" turned a willfully obscure punk-folkie named Beck Hansen into a marketable commodity. And after 1996's hot-selling "Odelay" and its hit single "Where It's At," it no longer had to be explained that Beck was not Jeff Beck. Now you see him on the Grammys, on the cover of Spin or Rolling Stone, even in the gossip columns. He can't seem to make a wrong move. The follow-up to the manic, electronic "Odelay" was the depressive "Mutations"; critics, forewarned by Geffen Records that this wasn't the real follow-up to "Odelay"--which would be along soon--duly loved it. Me too.

So now the real follow-up to "Odelay" is here: "Midnite Vultures," touted as Beck's "party record." I dreaded it. Wasn't this about the point where brilliant acts (e.g., the Police) start to screw up? Well, not this time. Like "Odelay," "Midnite Vultures" comes on stronger the more you listen to it: one track after another leaps out at you until you've got 11 new favorite songs. It opens with the antic "Sexx Laws," whose Stax-Volt horns give way to pedal steel, synth and bluegrass banjo; it ends with "Debra," sung in Jagger-like ersatz-soul falsetto, with words Frank Zappa would've loved: "I met you at J. C. Penney/I think your name tag said Jenny/... I want to get with you/And your sister, I think her name's Debra." In between, we get styles from rap to country, various irresistible grooves, beats and hooks, electronic wheeps and gurgles, turntable scratching and faux surface noise, and verbal panoramas of the seductive, menacing landscape of Beck's imagination: "Satin sheets, tropical oils/Turn up the heat till the swimming pool boils."

All this is familiar from "Odelay," but if "Midnite Vultures" is initially less surprising, it's eventually more amazing. For all his cutting-edginess, Beck is a throwback to the days before LPs. Each track here is a record in itself, with an almost Ellingtonian wealth of detail, color and texture; on "Peaches & Cream" several themes get stated separately, disappear, then come together at the end. In four minutes, you've been to more places than most CDs take you in their whole wearisome length. And if those electro-tweaked voices and Dr. Seuss rhymes ("Her left eye is lazy/Nicotine and gravy/Miracles amaze me/She looks so Israeli") feel like too much fun, that's just the point. Like the pre-Artist Prince--whom this CD often evokes--Beck parties like it's 1999. Except it is 1999. Right now, "Midnite Vultures" is all I want to hear when driving those late-night back roads, and it should see me through into the next thousand years.

Beck. Midnite Vultures.' Geffen.