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Beck and Crosby Are "California Dreaming" On New CDs

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Although often touted for being the infamous "disco decade", the 70's also brought us the age of the singer/songwriter: up until that point, the emphasis had always been on bands, and the occasional solo recording artist was seen as something of a novelty - the 70's introduced us to the concept of individual artists who used music as a form of creative expression. From James Taylor and Carly Simon to Carole King and Jim Croce, the prevailing sound on FM radio mirrored the lifestyle and atmosphere of West Coast 70's soft-rock.

In addition, more esoteric and au courant artists emerged - Nick Drake, Scott Walker, Tim Buckley, Kate Bush, as well as those who left the comfort of their established groups to fly solo. When David Crosby wanted to record a more personal album apart from Crosby, Stills and Nash, he enlisted his Haight/Ashbury buddies from The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. The resulting 1971 release, If I Could Only Remember My Name was viewed as something of a vanity project at the time, and with the exception of some hipper radio jocks, received little in the way of airplay. Today, Crosby's solo debut is seen for the sprawling, messy, iridescent, transcendent album it truly was: filled with beatific harmonies, daring chord and time changes, and lyrics that looked inward for the answers that troubled an entire generation. Crosby, of course, never asked to be the voice of his generation, but he didn't shy away from that responsibility either - which is why CSN(&Y) tunes like "Almost Cut My Hair" "Long Time Gone" and "Deja-Vu" remain timeless and relevant some forty years later.

On Croz (Blue Castle Records), his fourth solo album proper, Crosby continues the musical collaboration he began with son James Raymond on 1996's CPR (which featured Crosby, James Pevar, and Raymond) but this time out, the overall vibe feels specific to Crosby's temperament, and finds his vocals and lyricism taking center stage. There's something hauntingly familiar about the harmonies that grace "What's Broken", the CD's opener. Written by Raymond, the song does an incredible job of speaking in his dad's voice: "Looking out on a buzzing city/Molecules go flying by/Standing here is a very lost disciple/How could it be that angels lie?/They lie....." Raymond's contributions on Croz (half the songs were co-written by him) pay tribute to his dad's brand of populist idealism. Unlike the CPR project (which digital outlet Rhapsody referred to as "music for commercial airline radio stations and/or elevators") the tunes on Croz attempt to go beyond the middle-of-the-road, adult contemporary banner.

Though not quite far enough. The production sheen on Croz often overwhelms the nuance and tenor of the songs themselves. The David Crosby of Remember might've bristled over how overly-polished things sound. This album had the potential to be a true masterpiece, if helmed by a more intuitive producer willing to bank on the idiosyncrasies of its artist. But seeing as this is the first collection of songs bearing the Crosby brand in nearly two decades, it's still cause for commendation (though what magic might Crosby have made if he'd reconnected with some of his cohorts from back in the day.) The musicians backing him up on Croz are technically proficient, and there are some unexpectedly haunting moments (Wynton Marsalis' trumpet solo on the introspective "Holding On To Nothing" accentuates such lines as "Even words from a friend can bring back the pain/Memories come back on their own", and Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler brings some tasty guitar licks to "What's Broken"), but for the most part, there is a lack of genuine chemistry - it's as if Crosby were being supported by session men, not getting high with a little help from his friends.

But then there's a gloriously transcendent moment, which occurs toward the end of the album. On the sparse, elegiac "Morning Falling" Crosby weaves a simple but affecting portrait of how US immigration policy adversely affects families ("They came that day, hollow men/Agents of a god they could not know/A mile above, distant eyes/Miss desperate pleas that pictures could not show.....") illuminated by the wind instruments of Steve Tavaglione and the sampled guitars of James Raymond. The track stands out for not being weighed down - instead of reflecting the excess of 90's adult contemporary, it manages to evoke familiarity while sounding so current, it could pass for a non-album cut from Radiohead's In Rainbows (I hope Thom Yorke gets wind of it, because a cover version by them would be pretty awesome.) Also worth noting is the aptly-titled "Radio" - apt, as it's easily the most radio-friendly cut on the disc, and again showcases Crosby the unabashed idealist ("Look out, look down/Reach your hand into the water/Pull someone out of the sea......you are the captain, this is the ship"), and evokes the stellar harmonies found on 1977's CSN album.

Maybe these are minor quibbles on my part: after all, David Crosby isn't the same man he was 40 years ago....how could he possibly be? And yet, the very qualities that we admired in him then still live in him now at the ripe ole age of 72 - if anything, the most affirming aspect of Croz is that it brilliantly illustrates that point: Crosby still cares, still bristles at injustice, still wants us to care. And still believes, as he did in 1971 that "Music Is Love". And so do I. Grade: A-

Nearly twelve years ago, that musical chameleon known as Beck threw us a curveball: instead of his usual brand of quirky, cut-and-paste aural madness, he dropped a somber, heartbreaking record of his breakup from stylist Leigh Limon. And yet, in the context of 2002, Sea Change was only radical in the respect that it was not what we would've expected from him at the time - I remember hearing "Little One" inside a Sam Goody's store and swearing it was an extension of Coldplay's Parachutes album (which had been playing earlier). What also made Sea Change a revelation for Beck was its unflinching honesty and emotional gravitas: the brittle despair on tracks like "Lost Cause", "Already Dead" and "Guess I'm Doing Fine" was not only palpable, but undeniably poignant.

Well, the cut-and-paste paradigm still rules on Morning Phase (Fonograf/Capitol), Beck's admitted sequel to Sea Change, though instead of literal sampling (as he employed on 1996's watershed opus, Odelay!) rock's favorite shape-shifter is content to appropriate textures from classic FM radio, and leave it to the listener to identify the source material. Following the 39 second orchestral opener "Cycle" (written and arranged by Beck Sr, aka: David Campbell) we hear the acoustic strumming of "Morning", which bears a strong resemblance to the Allman Brothers' "Melissa." And this disc is rife with such "resemblances", as Beck constructs a song-cycle that is the Prozac to Sea Change's dysthymia: sun-drenched harmonies, majestic strings, mid-tempo arrangements, wistful piano lines and airy reverb abounds - resulting in an ethereal, lilting collection.

Of course, these same elements were at play on Sea Change, and Beck has assembled the same musicians in the same studio for the new album. But there is an undercurrent of calculatedness here that wasn't present on the former: "Blue Moon", the lead single, starts off referencing John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy" before cross-pollinating Nick Drake with Scott Walker and comes out smelling like Coldplay; "Heart Is A Drum" opens with a guitar arpeggio that recalls Godley and Creme's "I Pity Inanimate Objects"; the banjo-flecked "Say Goodbye" is a page from the Seals and Crofts playbook; all "Wave" needs is Brendan Perry's vocals, and you've got Dead Can Dance, etc.

Then there's the lyrics. If it were 1974, they'd be perfect - but given the antecedent it can't help but be measured against, many of Beck's couplets feel, I hate to say it, but a tad trite. That doesn't mean these songs aren't gorgeous to listen to, because they are - the Baroque-pop that adorns "Blackbird Chain", the country-folk of "Country Down" and the Simon and Garfunkel homage "Turn Away" are among the prettiest tunes he's ever penned. And while I don't fault Beck for being in a happier frame of mind than on Sea Change, I still would've liked to have felt some legitimate emotional tension here, instead of it being vaguely implied. Paul McCartney once asked what's wrong with wanting to fill the world with pretty love songs. Beck seems to be asking the same question on Morning Phase, and I wish I had an answer for that. It's just that, for an artist who relishes in going against the grain and doing the unexpected, he's created exactly what I would've expected - a musical bookend to Sea Change. Beck, predictable? Say not so. Grade: A-

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