As Beck heads into a new millennium, the alt-rock poster boy looks pretty much the same as he ever has. His scraggly, uncombed hair, thrift-shop wardrobe and frequently geeky stage moves would seem to make him the pop world's least likely candidate for Sex Machine status.
But heck if the Pale One didn't take to the role Monday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, where he launched the tour for his forthcoming "Midnite Vultures" album with a show exalting the mystical magic of the deep groove.
In what is becoming an annual tradition for Orange County--it's the third consecutive album he's introduced with surprise warmup shows at the 600-seat club in Santa Ana before heading out on a full-fledged tour of larger halls and arenas--Beck Hansen and his monster eight-piece band extended the stylistic shift they previewed last month headlining the inaugural Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
If his breakthrough 1996 album "Odelay" was the summit of his sonic patchwork craftsmanship, "Midnite," from the handful of songs he drew from it Monday, appears to answer the 90-degree swing into sustained melody and slinky rhythms of last year's experimental "Mutations" album with a remarkable R&B-founded rhythmic power.
The new songs still include touches of the aural eclecticism that are his hallmark--he flitted as ever like a bee from musical flower to flower, tasting of the funk nectar of James Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton and Prince to up-to-the-minute current hip-hop.
Structurally, however, the new material uses a more conventional pop song form, with full melodies rather than snippets. They were poured over a Herculean bottom end pounded out by bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, drummer Victor Indrizzo and turntable-scratching DJ Swamp, from beginning to end. Well, they weren't really polished endings, but at least everyone abruptly stopped simultaneously.
The evolution takes Beck from being modern rock's premier channel surfer to its zoned-in groovemaster.
He seamlessly fused metal with R&B, soul, funk and hip-hop sounds, often further enlivened by energetic dance steps on his own or in tandem with Meldal-Johnsen and guitarist Lyle Workman. Beck even tossed in a few dramatic splits and knee-drops a la the Godfather of Soul and the Purple One.
The new "Peaches & Cream" showed off his surprisingly confident falsetto range, as well as a playfully repetitive sex-is-the-solution lyric hook: "Peaches and cream / Make the garbage man scream!" He lived the scream with an ascending triad as he yelped "Ah-ah-ahhhhhh!" in a late-night melding of Philip Bailey and Robert Plant.
It was followed by a relentlessly throbbing performance of "Devils Haircut," which closed the set and left the standing-room-only crowd screaming.
Despite a thunderous five-minute ovation that continued well after the house lights and music went on, there was no encore. Apparently the king of late-'90s pop music had left the building.
* Randy Lewis may be reached by e-mail at Randy.Lewis@latimes.com.