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POP MUSIC | Record Rack

Beck Reaches Deeper but Keeps Party Spirit

**** BECK, "Midnite Vultures," Geffen

November 21, 1999|RICHARD CROMELIN

It was one thing for Beck to place his innocent Everyman in the psychedelic folk-rock landscape of "Odelay," a relatively benign terrain. It's quite another to drop him into the treacherous shoals of this aptly titled successor, where sexual transactions entice and entrap, where dance steps blur into escape moves. Welcome to Beck's "Boogie Nights."

"Midnite Vultures" is a party album, as advertised, a pulsating succession of R&B, disco and hip-hop that adds up to irresistible, grin-inducing, booty-shaking fun. Beck treats these forms with both the utmost respect and free-flowing irreverence, bringing a playful touch to his falsetto vocals and the funky beats. He gives it a cinematic richness, depth and detail with an array of mutations and surprises, from banjo hoedown to electronic effects.

But after the erotic celebration of the opening "Sexx Laws," the music takes on an uneasy edge. This is a party where the punch is spiked, where strangers start dropping in, where intoxication becomes disorientation. From the cascades of Beck's vibrant, kaleidoscopic imagery emerge scenarios of intrigue and coercion, and an uneasy sense of something sinister going on in the back rooms.

The real jolt in "Midnite Vultures" isn't Beck's startling, sweat-drenched, scissor-split spin into full-blown soul music, but the quantum leap in emotional stakes and creative tension that accompanies it. If he has sometimes seemed like a glib chameleon with his stylistic sleight-of-hand, he now makes music that's essential to the meaning of his stories, and he tells stories that prevent the music from being his arbitrary costume of the moment.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two (fair), three (good) and four (excellent). The albums will all be released Tuesday.

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