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A Free-Associative Beck Bender Takes Hold

Beck's "Cell Phone's Dead" offers up a summary of his styles.
Beck's "Cell Phone's Dead" offers up a summary of his styles.

Anyone looking for a quick sense of where Beck's at in 2006 can get it by cueing up "Cell Phone's Dead," one of 17 songs from the richly textured new The Information. It starts with what sounds like a sampled construct: a loping Latin rhythm thick with percussion. This bit of exotica evaporates before the voice enters, and there's an abrupt turn into a Beck comfort zone: The beat gets tough and funky, reinforced by some super-elastic Gap Band synth bass. The stage is then set for a typical free-associative Beck bender filled with worries about being cut off, even momentarily, from that cellular lifeline, and exhortations to grab the microphone "like a utility man..." before making the kick drum sound "like an SOS."

Just when it seems like High Concept Guy has finally become a victim/prisoner of his own funhouse, the hook arrives — in the form of a haunting melancholy phrase that sounds like it floated over from Beck's sad-boy album Sea Change. That's followed by an impish voice offering hip-hop-style punctuation, via the vow, "One by one I'll knock you out." The juxtaposition is jarring the first time, and it gets slightly weirder as it goes along, a high-speed volley between the primal fear of desolation ("cell phone's dead / lost in the desert") and a riled-up exhortation to party time.

Eventually, Beck returns to the opening rhythm, this time adding the sonic oddness: weird whistles and squiggles and, eventually, layers of intricate vocal harmony. As the voices are piled on, the chorale balloons into something riveting and poignant, a nearly symphonic sound that gathers the alternating currents of Beck's art — the junior-jumble wordplay of Odelay, the Sea Change-style melodic yearning, the Mutations-esque island beat, the high-gloss funk collage of Midnite Vultures — into one tidy and nearly timeless package.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.