Emotion and Commotion (Rhino)
By Mike Finkelstein
For many years the arrival of a new Jeff Beck release has been eagerly anticipated by musicians and enthusiasts worldwide. His body of work is a diverse and continuing work in progress and his influence is as widespread as that of any living rock musician. It’s always an event when we finally get to hear what he has concocted. He is known fondly for his mercurial approach to playing electric guitar and three of his albums have earned Grammys. Live and on recordings, his tone and technique are uniquely unpredictable, brilliant, and at times astonishing. He often juxtaposes the calmest with the craziest of musical moments. With his new album, Emotion and Commotion, he seems to be in a state of transition and experimentation. Most of the album features Beck’s guitar blending with a restrained and streamlined rhythm section under a dominating orchestral presence. The production by Steve Lipson and Trevor Horn and the arrangements by Pete Murray have yielded a state of the art contemporary sound that is extraordinary.
To hear Jeff Beck’s guitar tones simply blending and often camouflaged in the musical backdrop is news on its own. For a long time his sound has meshed beautifully with the core of every song it was part of , but for single line solos it usually became a dazzling showcase. Throughout Emotion and Commotion his guitar lines sound like another voice in the orchestra, fluid and ethereal as they could possibly be, and distinguished by their sustain and tone. I suspect it was exactly this lush vibe that the project was striving for.
While the new album does sound beautiful, it is in stark contrast to much of the harder rocking moments we have come to know and expect from Jeff Beck over much of his recording career. His music continues to develop as he has given a great deal of attention to textures, dynamics and the techniques he can use to blend his guitar with new musical situations. For this project the thrust is towards playing with an orchestra to really make it sound integrated.
Jeff Beck is not an artist who plays it close to the vest for long, and making an album like Emotion and Commotion is not playing it safe. It is a big departure from what his audience has grown to know and love about his playing over his career. There is, by comparison to his earlier work, not a whole lot of soloing on the new disc. The trademark crazy guitar playing and mutated effects, the big and busy drum fills, the slap happy bass lines, the funky keyboard runs…all have been streamlined in favor of the big ethereal. Beck seems to be in a transition period with his music.
The album begins with “Corpus Christi,” which features no percussion, just the orchestra and a guitar tone that seems to breathe and sigh. The tone and delivery are subtly elegant for their simple delivery. Throughout the disc, this approach swells impressively as we see how expressive restraint can be when practiced by a guy like Beck. Few players can make a guitar sound so enmeshed with an orchestral backing. We catch a brief glimpse of the more raucous sounding Jeff Beck that so many have come to appreciate in “Hammerhead.” It features a distorted wah guitar that does more than hint at a Hendrix “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” tone. The drums and bass flex their muscles accordingly and though the solo is short it is overdriven and rocking, full of whammy bar delights, wild and frenzied but always controlled. Next is “Never Alone,” with its light percussion, slinky rhythm guitar and ultra melodic lines. Here we wait for the real JB to emerge but the track ends without him really cutting loose. Still, the tone he refines here is gorgeous.
Oddly, we get a version of “Over the Rainbow” that, in terms of tone and arrangement, one could only expect from the likes of Jeff Beck. His take on this standard is representative of Emotion and Commotion as it features a dramatically lush mix of cellos and whispering guitar lines. The melody line is alternately unrecognizable and vivid. The real story here is how smoothly his guitar weaves into the orchestral backdrop. It’s Jeff Beck continuing to develop the art of blending in rather than jumping out.
With Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” he gives us yet another entry in a career ripe with stylized takes on classic, yet somewhat out of the way songs. Guest vocalist Joss Stone interprets the song soulfully and forcefully without going over the top. Beck’s guitar tone glistens and twines around her voice famously, playfully and with spunk. On this track, the strings do not overpower the guitar and the arrangement is better for it. The piano was recorded clean, and locks in tightly with the cymbals, connecting the song nicely to its roots decades ago.
Stone also sings “There’s No Other Me.” Here, her voice and his guitar are also a great match. They feed off of each other. One could say that in belting it out, she pulls the old Jeff Beck in from the wings of the studio to come have a blow, as his guitar alternately growls and groans the way we all had hoped it would. He has a trademark ability to isolate the most fleeting sonic hues from a cranked guitar, just when it gets a mind of its own. The track cycles dynamically, going from cool, tight and funky to full fire hot a couple of times. Tal Wilkenfeld’s bass smolders and slithers throughout and she, too, spurs Beck on to make his guitar sing. In the end the song simply fades away, leaving this listener feeling that it ended too soon.
“Serene” is an aptly titled study in musical texture setting the mood for a vivid instrumental dialogue between Jeff and Tal. The details of this arrangement are just gorgeous. The feeling is so light and there is such a warm updraft for these two to glide upon. The bass pulses deliberately then dances gracefully in the upper registers only to slide smoothly in any other direction she wants to take it. Beck’s slinky, harmonized single track guitar lines embellish the whole track elegantly, leading into his singing, one note sustained lines and octave phrasing. It’s a truly polished and soulful performance. For anyone who has seen some of the dynamic footage of Jeff and Tal playing live, the visual imagery on a piece like this becomes very appealing.
“Lilac Wine” is one of two tracks Beck selected from the revered 1994 album Grace by Jeff Buckley. Though neither “Lilac Wine” nor “Corpus Christi Carol” were written by Buckley, his stirring, straightforward interpretations inspired Beck to use them. For “Lilac Wine” Imelda May’s soulful and oh, so warm voice is showcased in yet another beautiful pairing of voice with guitar — a study in inspired restraint.
On pieces like the Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma” and “Elegy for Dunkirk” (from Dario Marianelli’s Oscar-winning score for the film Atonement) the focus becomes achieving a seamless mesh of guitar and orchestra. On these tracks Beck guides his guitar, using his tone and technique, into the registers of voice and winds with some of his most vocal guitar tones to date. These tracks sound positively cinematic, with huge bass timbres in the strings and phenomenal clarity throughout. And it may only be a matter of time before some of the music on the album shows up in movie soundtracks. Still, this would be only one of many directions in which Jeff Beck can now take his music. With so many sophisticated guitar and production techniques at work, Emotion and Commotion establishes the possibilities of a nearly vocal connection between guitar, ensemble and orchestra.
It’s really amazing to stop and consider all of the musical ground that Jeff Beck has covered, crafted and innovated over the years. His is one instrumental voice that you just have to listen to every time he’s got something new to release. Most definitely!
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