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Beck
Midnite Vultures
(DGC/Geffen)

On his giddy new album Midnite Vultures, Beck summons the funky spirit of Prince and parties up with himself like it's 1981. Not only does he "cold step" to a J.C. Penney employee with "a fresh pack of gum" in the falsetto-soaring slo-groove "Debra," he also serenades her with the Princely line, "I wanna get with you/And your sister/I think her name's Debra." It doesn't stop there: rinky-dink synths, sexy come-ons, and R&B grooves populate Midnite Vultures as if it's a Dirty Mind refuge.

Billed as Beck's official follow-up to his 1996 tour de force Odelay (last year's stripped-down, folky Mutations, while a fine effort, isn't really an album that merits repeated listens), Midnite Vultures ups the soul factor, but decreases the kitchen-sink approach of its predecessor. Indeed, Odelay architects the Dust Brothers are on board for only two tracks here (including the aforementioned "Debra"), but they make the most of the pair. The hip-hopping "Hollywood Freaks" is the closest Midnite Vultures gets to the mixed-up soundscapes that fueled Odelay, but the growth in other areas is astounding. Lyrically, Beck has never been more coherent and witty.

From the opening "Sexx Laws," with horns, banjo, and pedal steel fighting for equal time, Midnite Vultures spreads on its tasty retro cheese beneath a layer of studio wizardry. While Beck's band has developed considerably over the past several years (constant touring will do that), there's still a glossy, fun spirit permeating these grooves that could only be achieved via quirky production. On "Peaches & Cream" (incidentally, Prince has had hit singles named "Peach" and "Cream"; coincidence?) the band slides into a funky groove beside gurgling synths, while Beck's falsetto drips lines such as "Peaches and cream/You make a garbage man scream."

At times it's difficult to tell how seriously we should take Beck. He's a modern cultural pirate, swiping and swapping beats and riffs; anything he gets his post-mod hands on is fair game. Midnite Vultures certainly surpasses Odelay in both ambition and scope, but the oddball elements are also piled on relentlessly (unless Beck really means all this Prince stuff). Regardless, at its best, the album confirms Beck as one of the decade's true original eccentrics, a funky soul brother in crushed purple velvet, armed with two turntables, a microphone, and some genuinely groovy songs. -- Michael Gallucci

Korn
Issues
(Epic)

A new Korn album? What urgent message could Korn possibly have to convey so soon after last year's angst-ridden, star-studded breakout album Follow the Leader? The opening seconds of Issues supply the head-scratching answer, as vocalist Jonathan Davis enters the proceedings mumbling, "All I want in life is to be happy" in his best singsong, quasi-Muppet voice (yes, he actually sings this time out). Relax, children. Issues is not Korn's genre-bending iconoclast "transition album." It offers the same canned angst, the same guitar effects histrionics, the same bowel-shaking earthquakes of doubt and remorse.

Too bad. Korn badly needed a shakeup. Everything on Issues has an earlier, better counterpart. The lead single, "Falling Away From Me," kicks up some dust, but lacks the faux-disco terrorism of Follow the Leader's "Got the Life," while second-tier tunes such as "Beg for Me" and "Somebody Someone" pale in comparison to earlier landmarks "Blind" and "A.D.I.D.A.S." The whole record feels slow, lethargic, and much less aggressive than the Korn of Kristmas Past. Several songs fade out suddenly, leaving them not so much ended as abandoned. Throw in a handful of lightweight "interlude" tracks (methinks somebody has overplayed that last Tool album), and you've got yourself a rather poorly disguised B-sides collection.

Again, too bad. The band still shows signs of intelligence, both in what it omits (thankfully, no repeat of Follow the Leader's crap-ass queer-baiting hillbilly "showdown" between Davis and Limp Bizkit Chief Dumb Shit Fred Durst) and what it includes. "Wake Up" lays down a verse groove similar to Hall & Oates's "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)," while Davis addresses his bandmates directly on the chorus: "You are my brothers/Each one I would die for . . . Let's take the stage and remember what we play for."

All of which leaves one final question: What do these guys play for anymore? Press releases and interviews play up the abuse and the hatred and the pain, but how long can Korn's sinister alchemy turn childhood torment into platinum? Davis's infamous vocal caterwauling doesn't help. Even when the nihilism reaches nuclear proportions on "Let's Get This Party Started," it only manages to squeeze the last few drops of energy from the mellow verse/wanton mayhem chorus formula. There's precious little water left in that particular well. -- Rob Harvilla

Michael Bocian
Premonition
(Enja)

Some fine jazz guitarists have come out of Cleveland: Jimmy Shirley, Bill DeArango, Jim Hall, and Michael Bocian. Hall's universally admired and respected, and DeArango, arguably the greatest bop guitarist, blew people away during the few years he played in New York with people like Dizzy Gillespie and Ben Webster, winning an Esquire award. But Bocian, who cites DeArango as an influence and hung around his Cleveland Heights music store as a kid, but now lives in New York, deserves far more attention. He's only made four albums, and this one deserves heavy airplay, if only because his playing is so technically brilliant.

Bocian began as a rock player, then went into classical music before settling upon jazz. Here he plays unaccompanied on nylon string guitar, and he wrote all of the tunes except "Lonely Woman." Bocian plays a number of different styles on Premonition. "Stepping Stones" contains free improvisation, although the stops and starts are predetermined. On the other hand, "Etude du Coeur" is completely written and comes from a book of 22 etudes he's composed. On "Meaning Us" and "Home at Last," his improvising is based on chord progressions, and he plays with astonishing speed during "Moonbugs," on which his guitar is deliberately not tuned.

In addition to his chops, Bocian produces a resonant tone and plays with tenderness as the occasion demands. Here, his work seems more influenced by Spanish classical guitar pieces than were earlier albums. Bocian has demonstrated that he can play brilliantly on electric guitar in group contexts, and this disc adds an important new dimension to his recorded output. -- Harvey Pekar

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