Classic Rock Review

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Jeff Beck Who Else! (1999)


Jeff Beck is famous, and wealthy, but not that famous and wealthy. Hailed by nearly every contemporary as one of the most innovative, expressive and technically accomplished rock guitarists in the history of the genre, his career has been sabotaged at nearly every turn by equally famous tendencies to, at various points, become publicity shy, to grow bored with music, to throw a band-breaking tantrum over the stress of touring or a malfunctioning amplifier, or to simply refuse to make any concessions to those who would mold him into a hit-making machine like Eric Clapton or even Jimmy Page, fellow Yardbirds who innovated early but, it could be argued, never moved beyond those breakthrough into the breaches they created.

The same cannot be said for Jeff. Here is a guitar player who, with the album “Truth,” provided a heavy blues-rock sound that set the template for everything Led Zeppelin ever did in the same mode. A player who proceeded to have the great misfortune to suffer tinnitus, head injuries, and the loss of Stevie Wonder’s hit song “Superstition,” (originally designed as a vehicle for Stevie and Jeff’s duet but which became a solo Stevie Wonder tune once his record label heard the song) in the early part of the Seventies. He then proceeded to make jazz fusion understandable and acessible to the general public on “Blow by Blow” and “Wired.” In the Eighties he solidified his presence as a truly technically accomplished shred machine on “Flash” and a talented instrumental composer on “Guitar Shop.” And in the Nineties, he brings us this album: a techno-based instrumental offering with no shortage of screaming guitar. And in between each release are all the hallmarks of a frustrated and demanding musician, who doesn’t release albums for years because he can’t get out from underneath his latest hot-rod.

By all rights this effort should have fallen flat on its face. How on earth could a British blues-era refugee, edging into his late fifties, ever manage to produce a techno album and have it be even close to credible, interesting, or cool? What would an Eric Clapton techno record sound like, for instance? It would be the end of his career. But not for Beck. A hallmark of his style is his need for propulsion behind his music: he’s never been able to keep ensembles together because he wants everything his way, compositionally, but at the same time he needs the dynamic energy of others in order to play to his highest potential. In the machine and keyboard based sounds of electronica, provided by longtime collaborator Tony Hymas, he has found a worthy opponent to tame and as a result makes some of his compositionally tightest stuff yet. Add in the occaisional guitar pyrotechnics of tapping virtuoso Jennifer Batten, you’ve got one of the coolest records anybody that’s still putzing around from Beck’s era in the Sixties has EVER produced in recent history.

Here’s the album track-by-track:

1.) What Mama Said
This track dispels any notion that Beck has gone off his rocker right off the bat. We are greeted by a techno beat and a sustained guitar chord being strummed, with a lot of mechanical wooshes to get into it. The aldrenaline begins pumping immediately as Jennifer Batten provides one of the SICKEST two-handed tapping riffs I’ve ever heard, as fluid as a keyboard and as rhythmically tight as the greatest rock playing. A short quote from “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” is heard, and right away we are greated with some very tasty riffing by the Beck-meister. This is rocking music with fantastic flourishes of machine and keyboard rhythms underneath. A swirling interlude occurs, and then a version of Batten’s riff is played by the bassist. Jeff then solos over the bassline for about a minute and a half, building up from the barest, small phrases into his screeching, wailing and dipping lead guitar. Batten riffs underneath for another moment, and then the ending is a quick cascade of frenzied drumming and a reprise of the “melody” riff. Amazing stuff.

2.) Psycho Sam
It doesn’t stop there. This is a very interesting track, with distinct metal vibes in the rhythmic choices that Beck makes (which is cool, because he’s always said that he loves all-out metal and claims that he can play it much eviler than anybody that currently does it). A nice legato lead is played over alternating-panned rhythm guitars, and a very frantic bassline played on keyboards. Then something very nice and un-Becklike comes out: a harmonized lead! After this nice melody is played, we have very fast clean guitar and a Middle-Eastern dual harmony riff that showcases Beck’s mastery of the whammy bar for the first time on the album. His solo does the exact same thing: with dips and bends all over the place, we can see that he hardly takes the effort to bend with his fingers anymore, so adept is he at using the whammy bar to control his pitch and vibrato. His tremolo picking is also very adept, which is all the more badass since Beck plays only with his fingers. A metallic interlude comes after long solos and reprises of the melody, and a long outro solo ends it, kept interesting by all the arrangements of the mechanical instruments.

3.) Brush with the Blues
Taken from a live recording in Germany, this song is a much more stripped down track, bearing no techno influence at all. Instead, we are treated to a thoroughly modern blues, with some of the most expressive soloing I’ve heard from anyone anywhere. It’s all here: incredible control of tone and dynamics, the flipping of pickups and tone pots and volume knobs on the fly, the expressions of his whammy bar, harmonic squeals, and an orgasmic solo filled with raunchy, screeching, and innovative blues shredding. Bringing it back down for the outro, Beck once again relaxes us with the utmost mastery he has in this style, and leads us into the next track, which forays back into techno territory with a twist.

4.) Blast From the East
Alternating between measures of 7/8 and 4/4, the rhythmic sense of this song is a bit twisted, but that’s more than okay because of the very cool Middle-Eastern-type leads Beck gives off, always with a neat exuberance and characteristic wail that makes it very cool. The solos are also extremely accomplished, demonstrating Beck’s fluid control of dynamics and bends. He’s particularly great at hitting “accidentals” and odd notes that, played by anybody else, would sound terrible, but due to his tendency to bend them all out of shape with the bar sound very musical and are deceptively complex and expressive. There’s another dual harmony, courtesy of Ms. Batten, later in the song.

5.) Space for the Papa
This is blues twisted beyond all recognition. There’s a very simple, grooving riff that makes up the basis of the song’s rhythm (when there is one, that is, as much of the song is just ambient keyboard swirls), followed by a very long solo section in which Beck orgasmically screeches and phrases using a slide, in which we can hear every extraneous noise of his guitar, which are reverbed heavily and sounding more like mechanical clanks. His swells and crashes are very cool and apocalyptic, and when the beat comes back in, his phrases take on a tight grooving quality, until they culminate in a series of tapped harmonics, natural harmonic dives, and very speedy natural harmonic triplets. Great stuff, and a hilight of the album.

6.) Angel (Footsteps)
A much more mellow affair, this track sees Beck playing slide lead over an almost silly, bouncy rhythm subdued by powerful keyboard chords. The song is based around a series of “fusiony” key changes and modal interchange, and the results are quite beautiful. This took a while to grow on me, as at the age when I first got into this, I was still on the lookout for nothing but screechy solos, but over a while the complex harmonies, which are simultaneously modern and fusiony, and yet remarkably reminiscient of ’50s ballads like “Sleepwalk,” really jumped out at me as beautiful and very tasteful.

7.) THX138
Named after George Lucas’ first film, this song is a rhythm-oriented track, with no real solos to speak of (although at the opening we are greeted by an absurdly fast and rhythmically complex legato figure). The only real guitar centerpiece are the whammy-dived chords and notes that jump out on occaision. Cool, but mostly only effective as background music. I’d say this qualifies as filler.

8.) Hip-Notica
This a cool little track, although it, like the previous one, seems like a bit of a throwaway. We combine 7/8 time with an Eastern-blues lead with a slow, subdued funk-blues bassline. This is pretty psychedelic and cool, and brings to mind slightly similar work from Beck’s Yardbirds period (during which time his bandmates were obsessed with Eastern influences). This track is also interesting only as texture. It doesn’t hold one’s attention as a musical piece, I feel.

9.) Even Odds
Here’s a very irreverent rock-out moment, and a rare display of unashamed lead fireworks. Beck is normally the epitome of tastefulness even in his speedy moments, but here he indulges in crashed cymbal, crushing drumbeat sections, a heavily-distorted riff alternating between 5/4 and 4/4, leading to very melodic, Satriani-like melodies, to a growling and wailing solo that indulges very frequently in speedy tapping, which is a trick Beck came up with years before Van Halen but has always shied away from using in the wake of its popularity. His take on the wide-interval sounds people like Vai use, using tapped notes as a sort of replacement for a picked phrase of a basic pentatonic idea, is very organic and effective. Once again, Beck’s guitar typically sounds like anything but a guitar.

10.) Declan
Written by a master of the Celtic form, Donal Lunny, this song is an excellent showcase for Beck’s ability to simulate the simple, hornpipe-style lines of Scottish airs with his guitar. Playing along with a wonderful acoustic guitar performed by Mr. Lunny, which utilizes koto and artificial harmonic passages in a wonderful free style, Beck harmonizes the wonderfully emotive and beautiful melody with both a violin and an Ulliean pipe, I believe. The results are a little mixed: I think Beck dialed in too distorted a tone, but it mixes pretty well with the other instruments. Again, his use of the whammy bar to control pitch is astounding.

11.) Another Place
A beautiful little instrumental closes this out, with a tasty fingerpicked piece by Mr. Beck. Almost classical sounding, this is another doorway into the myterious musical mind of the guitar player, who has typically hidden a vast portion of his musical knowledge on record.

This is great stuff, and a wonderful challenge for any player and lover of Beck’s previous work. Joe Satriani aped this on his “Engines of Creation” and came up with another thing that showed just how effective rock guitar is when working in conjunction with the overlooked rhythmic complexity and musical sophistication of electronica, but this record is even then much more innovative than Satch’s version. Beck is a true rock player, as he is often as noisy and raunchy as he is musical. Beck combines nearly all his knowledge of his previous efforts and brings them to bear on these heartless machines and injects some soul into everything as a result. This is a highly interesting and quite good record.

May 15, 2010 - Posted by | Jeff Beck Who Else! |

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