Monday, April 12, 2010

New album from Jeff Beck ought to inspire Jimmy Page

Much has been made of the extent to which Jimmy Page did or did not craft the earliest of his tremendously successful musical ventures in the image of Jeff Beck. Not only were they bandmates in the Yardbirds for a brief time in 1966, but they'd been buddies since their teens or even pre-teens. Lately, Beck's been out touring a lot, raising his profile among crossover audiences. No longer is he exclusively the subject of idol worship by just guitar aficionados. Beck's name recognition is at an all-time high, on the eve of the release of something like his 15th album (depending on which ones you count). With all its diversity and unpredictability, Emotion and Commotion is a truly worthy addition to his life's work.

Jimmy Page hasn't released a new studio album in 12 years, and he is also coming up on a decade since his last concert tour. Now would be a fine time for him to end his drought -- and why not siphon Beck's aqueducts? I suggest this because Beck's new album has it all. But mostly what it has is what its title implies: Nearly every one of the 10 tracks on the disc could be pigeonholed into either the "Emotion" or the "Commotion" category. Those I consider leaning toward "Emotion" exemplify the "light and shade" Page always attempted to incorporate in his music, while the tracks I label "Commotion" are strictly the loud and frantic rock numbers. On both kinds, Beck relies somewhat on the backing of a 64-piece orchestra.

The high point of the orchestra's use, as far as the "Emotion" tracks, occurs on his take of "Nessun Dorma." Yes, seriously! Jeff Beck covers an aria from a Puccini opera! Now, before you go knocking it because you despise the genre, consider that Hollywood has contributed to sustaining this music's hold on popular culture ever since its public debut in 1926. It's timeless music; Beck won't steer you wrong. Plus, this turns out to be the most emotive track on the CD, and that's all I'm going to say to silence the opposition.

Also on the "Emotion" half is another musical work that has survived more than 70 years, "Over the Rainbow," from "The Wizard of Oz." I can hear the collective yawn from people reading this: The song's a cliche, everybody and their sister has played it to death, and no one in 2010 can possibly add anything new to it. Just listen. Absorb yourself in this key-shifting arrangement, and you'll likely forget you're listening to an electric guitar as the melody swirls around and soothes you.

A review of the album by Stephen Thomas Erlewine says this is the first time Beck has "sustained this level of grace for a full record." I don't know if the wordsmith's use of the word "grace" was intended to be a pun or not, but Beck twice echoes Jeff Buckley's song choice on his landmark 1994 disc, Grace. Neither "Corpus Christi Carol" nor "Lilac Wine" was written by Buckley, but the late singer commanded them to be his own with his powerful, soulful and often delicate voice. Here, Beck's guitar recreates that style very effectively. Parts of "Lilac Wine" are sung by relief pitcher Imelda May, a jazz singer born in Ireland.

Hers isn't the only voice heard on the disc. There's an uncredited female adding background texture on "Serene." Beck seems to prefer surrounding himself with women's vocals, as Olivia Safe lends her operatic stylings on the album-closing "Elegy for Dunkirk" while the immensely hip Joss Stone freaks us out with the Screamin' Jay Hawkins cover "I Put a Spell On You" and stuns us with an original she co-wrote with jazz fusion keyboardist Jason Rebello, called "There's No Other Me."

By the way, that's one track that definitely falls straight into the "Commotion" category; the loud rock piece is the only thing on the album heavy enough to follow "Nessun Dorma." Frustratingly, "There's No Other Me" fades out just as Beck seems ready to lay down an amazing guitar solo. Another of the few originals on this disc is the elegantly titled "Hammerhead," where the orchestra supports Beck's fast and heavy riff that's a decided throwback to classic Beck of the 1970s.

Minutes after Jimmy Page inducted Jeff Beck into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame one year ago, they stood together and took questions from a pool of reporters gathered there in Cleveland. When Beck was asked about the prospect of releasing a new album, he explained why it had already been six years since his last. "I got this release phobia," he said. "I get halfway through a project, and I just go, 'Oh, that's no good. I don't think that's gonna work.' And then, I listen to it again about a year later and I think, 'Ehh, it would have worked. It's just too late now 'cause it's old-fashioned.' So it never gets done."

However, Beck immediately credited his backing band -- Jason Rebello on keyboards, Tal Wilkenfeld on bass and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums -- with being enough reason to get a new studio disc out. Emotion and Commotion was recorded by the end of the year, with the 64-piece orchestra and all.

Well, Jimmy Page says he has new music in the works to debut this year. Who wants to bet he has a 64-piece -- no, wait, make that a 65-piece orchestra lined up to back him on new renditions of Bizet's "Carmen," Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," and the overture from "Gone with the Wind"? Bonus points if Pagey has Adele sing "I'm Your Witchdoctor"!

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