JEFF BECK — Who Else! (review)

JEFF BECK — Who Else! album cover Album · 1999 · Jazz Related Rock Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
After making belated but impressive amends at the tail end of the 80s for the misguided mess that was “Flash” with the energized “Guitar Shop,” Jeff Beck took a break. Unbeknownst to me and his fans, our idea of a little time off and his were sun orbits apart because it turned out to be a decade before he’d get around to offering up a new album of original tunes. He didn’t retreat into full-blown hibernation, exactly, for he conjured up some incidental music for an Australian TV miniseries (“Frankie’s House” in ’92) and took a starring role in an homage to Gene Vincent (“Crazy Legs” in ’93) to indicate he was still breathing but after that came nada, making us wonder if he’d tragically lost his mojo. Perhaps the truth is he was merely content to enjoy the fruits of his labor and spend his mid-life years freely indulging in his antique car obsession whilst traipsing about his expansive English manor. If so, who’ll hurl the first stone? Finally, in March of ’99, he released his long-awaited “Who Else!” disc and reassured us without a doubt that he’d kept his arsenal of guitars near the couch so his magic touch on the fretboard wouldn’t suffer from neglect. Beck-ola was alive and in good health, a relief to millions.

While the album is a bit too techno at times for my liking, in retrospect that aspect is more a side effect of the prevailing production trends that ruled at the end of the 20th century than a matter of JB trying to be “hip.” The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and quality material can grant forgiveness for a multitude of minor sins. Unlike “Guitar Shop” where he’d put together a solidified trio with Terry Bozzio and Tony Hymas, this project was much more a solo endeavor. He brought in some talented close buddies like Jan Hammer, Hymas and the great Manu Katche to contribute alongside bassist Pino Palladino (sounds like a variety of wine, no?), drummer Steve Alexander and synth expert Simon Wallace so it’s obvious that he intended to make some serious yet joyful noises this time around. The overall impression I get is that, in light of his stellar track record, he knew he had absolutely nothing to prove or lose. Therefore Jeff was concentrating on just being himself. He couldn’t have chosen a better path to tread.

Jeff opens things up with what would eventually be a Grammy-nominated instrumental, “What Mama Said.” The track’s ferocious beginning is as hard-driving as I’ve ever heard him, making it immediately apparent that he hadn’t lost his penchant for taking a walk on the wild side during his ten-year sabbatical. The song’s ascending wall of noise is very Sgt. Pepper-ish in an honorable sort of way but the highlight of the tune comes when Beck vamps insanely over locomotive drums. With “Psycho Sam” the hard-as-granite rock mentality continues but with a more cohesive melody line to focus on. He throws in an intriguing bridge containing a slight Indian vibe but so much for mellowing with age, folks. Jeff attacks this song ruthlessly with his razor-sharp axe and shreds it to kindling right before your very ears. A live cut, “Brush With The Blues,” follows and it provides a much-needed respite from the onslaught of his fury. The tune’s title is correct in that it has a bluesy aura yet it’s far from being chained to the traditional and often tired 12-bar variety. To the delight of the crowd, Beck fills holes imaginatively and listening to him perform is one “How’d he do that?” moment after another. A bold undercarriage sticks “Blast from the East” right in your face and the odd time signature the players kick around readily distinguishes it from what’s occurred previously. Let’s just say that Jeff blazes through this number like a raging river of fire and nothing is left unscathed.

“Space For the Papa” opens with a spacey, cosmic introduction that sets the table for some tasty, deep-fried funk. The tune reveals itself to be an empty white canvas for Beck to throw buckets of bright neon guitar riffs upon, creating a fine piece of modernistic aural art. The gifted Tony Hymas wrote the next song, “Angel (Footsteps),” wherein a light, inoffensive hip-hop rhythm lays down a soft foundation to support this ethereal number so that Jeff gets to show off his genius for manipulating the upper registers of his instrument. Tony’s dense layers of keyboards produce a glowing backdrop for him that’s warm and highly hypnotic. On “THX 138” a busy but invigorating pulse dominates the proceedings. Beck’s guitar-generated howls and screams bring to mind some kind of mad scientist’s mechanical pterodactyl gone haywire, terrorizing a once-sleepy hillside village without mercy. The interesting 7/8 beat pattern that propels “Hip-Notica” promises great things and the energetic song doesn’t disappoint. The Hammond B3 (or its artificial equivalent. I can’t tell anymore.) organ sound gives it a sultry air and kudos to Jeff for admirably restraining himself from injecting too much riffing into the tune’s cool aura. A heavy rock stomp drenches “Even Odds” with a menacing varnish but the arrangement also takes you off into some adventurous detours that keep it from turning into a predictable dirge. Beck’s delicate treatment of a traditional folk song, “Declan,” follows and it’s a treat. A dreamy mist drapes the beautiful melody with an appropriate Irish personality that benefits from spirit-lifting pipes and Jeff’s fuzzy sustain comes off not unlike the emotional voice of a violin. The album’s finale is “Another Place,” and it’s all Beck. His short but breathtaking performance can soothe the worst of savage beasts and one is struck by his unyielding command of the instrument he’s mastered as completely as anyone ever has.

While this disc’s frequent use of electronic drums kept it from attaining masterpiece status I still heartily endorse it as a must-have but I’m not finished just yet. Realizing I get perilously close to gushing in the following statement, I’ll venture on without regard to or fear of the reader’s potential disdain: Jeff Beck is an icon of my generation that has risen above definition. He’s a virtuoso that can shred with the best of ‘em but he’s not just a shredder. He’s a technician of the highest caliber but he’s much more than just a scale-running automaton. If anything he’s a risk-taking, no-holds-barred, courageous explorer of uncharted fusion territory who simultaneously possesses the passionate heart of a seasoned Delta bluesman that guides his soul. I daresay that we’re all in the presence of one of the most influential guitarists that ever strolled upon terra firma and those of you who have yet to check out his amazing body of work (least of all this excellent record) are really missing out. “Who Else!” indeed.
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