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WEEKEND REVIEW / Pop Music Rrview

Beck's Vision Expands in Intimate 'Mutations'

May 10, 1999|RICHARD CROMELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"This is the beginning and the end of the 'Mutations' tour, this weekend," Beck informed his audience at the Wiltern Theatre on Saturday, the first of his two nights there.

Not much of a tour, but actually there wasn't going to be any activity at all coinciding with "Mutations," the late-'98 album that the Los Angeles singer-songwriter offered as something other than a full-fledged official release, a sort of side project that wouldn't require the standard blitz of media exposure and sales-drumming concerts.

But you can keep Beck completely off the stage only for so long. So there he was last week doing a special show in Las Vegas, then setting up at the Wiltern, where he enlarged one portion of the panoramic musical vision that has made him one of pop music's prime movers.

The concert fell somewhere between the loose, folk / country set he played one night in 1997 at the El Rey Theatre and the big "Odelay" show, which took its cues from high-voltage R&B revues. Saturday's music followed the contours of the "Mutations" material, which sets aside Beck's grand pop kaleidoscope and settles into one of its facets--an organic, folk-rooted sound framing songs that are sweeter and darker than those on his breakthrough "Odelay" album.

They're also more personal and somehow seem more from the heart, and the softer dynamics emphasized this by allowing his voice to stretch and creak in sympathy with his dreamily disquieting lyrics, which suggest a world that's been neglected and abused until it's too late to save. Images of decay, decadence and disease pop up like scattered testimony to some gentle apocalypse.

But the weary, melancholy tone of the words and vocals is salved by the music's hopeful buoyancy. At the Wiltern the sheer textural range was intoxicating. Beck's basic band was supplemented by a horn section, string players and pedal steel guitar. A deejay added vinyl scratching now and then, and twin sitars were deployed on "Nobody's Fault but My Own."

The "Mutations" focus made for a leisurely pace and a sit-down-and-listen mandate. An early jolt of energy from the Brazilian-flavored "Tropicalia" turned out to be an isolated spike of dance fever, until Beck finally dipped into his crowd-pleasing, robot-dancing soul man persona near the end.

The boyish bard struck an engagingly intimate tone for all this, speaking respectfully of his musical influences and his audience, underscoring his pleasure at doing a show that focuses on playing and listening instead of a big act.

That approach--casual in manner but rigorous musically--suited the nature of "Mutations." It's a record that isn't a major statement but one that adds something meaningful to a body of work, and the fact that it was delivered at the artist's pace, not on the industry's timetable, might be as radical and liberating a gesture as Beck's insistence on an unrestricted, border-free flow of music. Once again, he has found treasure between the cracks.

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