By RICHARD CROMELIN
LOS ANGELES TIMES
DON'T LOOK NOW, BUT BECK IS BACK ON the street, and the street is back in Beck's music. The singer had recorded "Que Onda Guero," a new song that describes the colorfully chaotic Los Angeles neighborhood where he spent part of his childhood. But there was something missing.
"The song felt kind of like it was in a vacuum," Beck said. "I was talking about all these things and I needed to bring a little bit of that world into the song. So I went down to my old street and just recorded things. I tried to find the 'vendedores,' the women who sell things in their shopping carts, and the guy with the Popsicle cart, the vegetable vans, the guys playing soccer, kids playing, all that stuff."
Sitting in a Cuban restaurant, Beck exudes a palpable affection for his old haunts and an excitement about the way he's brought it into his music.
Fans of the ever-shifting singer-songwriter are likely to share that enthusiasm about his new album, "Guero," especially those who drifted away as he followed his 1996 landmark, "Odelay," with a series of diverse, less immediately accessible records -- the simple, Tropicalia-tinged "Mutations"; the high-concept funk workout "Midnite Vultures"; and the intimate, confessional "Sea Change."
Those three combined have not sold the 2 million-plus of "Odelay," whose rock/folk/hip-hop hybrids helped turn Beck from the quirky creator of the alternative radio hit "Loser" into the genre's baby-faced posterboy.
So "Guero," which came out March 29 with a blast of fuzz guitar, playful rap tracks and dense, animated soundscapes from the "Odelay" production team the Dust Brothers, could easily be seen as a bid to reclaim his old popularity
"No," Beck objects with a laugh. "I would have made a skinny-pants record with chang-chang-chang-chang-chang guitars or something. I really tried to steer from stuff that I think of as trendy. Some of the songs to me are out-and-out 1991."
Living in the present
Anyway, he's not eager to relive his moment in the sun.
"I maybe had a couple of months where I'd walk in to get a sandwich, and the guy behind the counter would go, 'Hey, Mr. Beck,' and that was very uncomfortable. I've always tried to focus on writing songs and making records and my singing and pushing things forward for myself, staying awake creatively, all those things. And all the other stuff is peripheral and completely out of my control.
"I don't really think of myself in the mainstream at all, but I know I'm not considered hip in that hipster world either, so I'm sort of in my own nether zone or something. Which maybe isn't a bad thing. ... I don't like having to own up to any kind of scene or live up to some kind of regulations."
The new album's title reflects that image of the outsider.
"I think literally it means 'blondie,' but it's like 'white boy.' It's the kind of thing I got yelled at me growing up. And friends of mine. So it's kind of a funny L.A. thing that certain people can relate to."
Beck Hansen is 34 and sports a thin beard, but he still has the look of a wide-eyed adolescent as he picks at a salad. Married to actress and screenwriter Marissa Ribisi, he beams when he talks about their 8-month old son, Cosimo, and there's an air of serenity about him that might come in handy when he heads to Europe with his new band.
There, he'll start the kind of touring cycle that in the past has gotten out of hand -- he still regrets staying on the road for three years after "Odelay" came out instead of taking a break to record another album.
"He's in such a great place," said Mike Simpson, who formed the Dust Brothers production duo with partner John King. "With his new wife and the baby on the way and then having the baby midway through [the recording], it was a very happy, happy scene. ...
"I was so impressed at how Beck has really learned to balance all the demands on his time, both personally from his family and from the entertainment world at large. ... He was amazingly focused and really driven to make a great record."
A dark side
But if all is going so well, why does "Guero" have such an air of doom and disquietude alongside its upbeat larks? Eerie dissonances suggest grotesque shapes, and Beck's ominous, soulful singing and recurring images of death, ditches and bones give parts of the album a blasted, apocalyptic tone.
"I didn't want it to just be sort of a goof-fest or something," said Beck, who was determined to extend the emotional aspects of the downbeat "Sea Change" into the new album. "I think some of that questioning and some of that uncertainty was bound to ripple from that record."
But there were deeper sources, dating back to the days after Sept. 11.
"I think a lot of it probably echoes that time of uncertainty that myself and a lot of friends were going through. ... Maybe we've all kind of progressed on and come to peace with certain things. But I think some of it's still there -- there's the war, and about the second week that I started on the record and writing the songs, a friend killed himself, so that was kind of a shock wave through my whole circle of friends. ...
"So I don't know, there was just certain things in the air. ... It's just kind of what was filtering in at the time."
Despite the time lag, Beck believes the album's essence remains timely.
"There are certain basic things that are just universal," he said. "If a song's an angry song, that's just part of life. A song of regret -- these are things that are as common as the air, and they're things that you cycle through."