Note: I put on Beck’s 1999 album Midnite Vultures the other day for the first time since I reviewed it more than 20 (!) years ago. It holds up and sounds better than ever on the sound system mine has grown into. To my surprise, my review also holds up.
One of my prized musical possessions is an LP called Souled Out, released by K-Tel circa 1975. This compilation of one-hit wonders, no-hit blunders, hidden gems (George McRae’s “I Can’t Leave You Alone” is even better than “Rock Your Baby”) and R&B landmarks gave even me, the whitest boy on the block, entree into the exotic world of funk and soul.
The seductive cross-section of styles on Souled Out lives on in Beck’s Midnite Vultures, which is a slice-and-dice tour of the last 30 years of African American pop: from the staccato horn accents, wah-wah guitars, and gurgling clavinets of high-sheen soul to the creepy busted gamelan sonics of mid-80s hip hop to the declamatory rhymes of rap. This tour de style has enough hooks per minute to satisfy the staunchest old school fanatic and makes Midnite Vultures the most immediate and immediately enjoyable Beck album yet.
Beck being Beck, however, this is not merely a genre exercise. Typically Beckian lyrics keep things off-kilter throughout. (My favorite but by no means the strangest or funniest line is, “You look good in that sweater and that aluminum crutch.”) But it’s the music — as opposed to the concepts, ironies, or beats — that consistently surprises. When the banjo and pedal steel drop from out of nowhere into the middle of “Sexx Laws,” Beck finds a way to fit them seamlessly into the mix. And the celestial choir that drifts into “Get Real Paid” feels like the perfect counterpoint to the weird white boy technofunk of that song. These jump cuts don’t seem like cheap jokes (something I’ve accused Beck of in the past) so much as epiphanies, unforeseen but in retrospect perfect.
The plentiful musical ideas on Midnite Vultures means that these songs take you on unexpected journeys. The druggy Sly Stone bass riff that opens “Nicotine & Gravy” inspires three or four successive vocal lines, which Beck eventually stacks up like a fugue before Arabic-sounding synth lines lead the song off in a whole new direction. This is the most meticulously crafted record of Beck’s career, and it’s also one hell of a lot of fun.
The momentum and confidence of the album are impressive. Barely a sound seems out of place — the most surprising of which is Beck’s voice. Think of vocals on past Beck records and you’ll probably call up that utterly affectless drawl of his — or maybe that inhuman vocorder rallying cry, “Two turntables and a microphone.” On Midnite Vultures Beck leaps into a whole new range — literally — by adopting an expressive falsetto that bridges the gap between Eugene Record of the Chi-Lites and Prince. Like generations of white men before him, Beck has found something in black music that allows him to say things — and say them in a way — that he isn’t be able to otherwise. Beck seems to have discovered a new kind of joy, sexiness, even tenderness in his music.
But things get complicated when the white boy blacks it up — even if it’s Beck, whose previous embrace of the blues, if somewhat dutiful, is well established. The line between homage and parody in music is a thin one, and it’s reasonable to ask if Beck crosses it in songs where he boasts of “packin’ heat” or what exactly he’s up to with choruses thrown out in his best ghetto drawl. In one way the album closing “Debra” is Midnite Vultures’s most impressive cut: a full-blown soul melodrama worthy of the Stylistics. And yet it’s also the most troubling cut, with Beck sounding like no one so much as Mick Jagger doing his best ironic-cum-sincere minstrel falsetto. With Midnite Vultures Beck enters the house of mirrors where race meets culture, and if it says nothing else, the album makes it clear that our most vital music continues to pick at the bones of the blues.
“Ava taught him how to sing a torch song. She taught him the hard way.” —Nelson Riddle
The idea is that Frank Sinatra’s impossible, unresolvable romantic relationship with Ava Gardner—for whom he left his wife at a time (1950) when it simply wasn’t done; to whom he was married for a brief, tumultuous period (1951–53*); with whom he tried to reconcile again and again—brought new depths of feeling to his singing, gave him deeper insights into heartache and love. And I would not dispute that reading, if only because the myth of the wound and the bow is too strong to dislodge; if only because Sinatra himself seemed to believe it. And as James Kaplan’s Sinatra: The Chairman makes clear, Frank never really did get over Ava (and vice versa). That torch smoldered as long as she was alive.
But maybe it was more than that. Ava was a sharp woman who knew music: she loved jazz, had been married to bandleader Artie Shaw, and was a fair singer herself (she never forgave MGM for dubbing her voice in Show Boat). What’s more, she had a notoriously acute BS detector and was one of the few people who had the guts to speak truth to Sinatra. No matter how much she loved his talent, she surely would have noticed the increasingly yawning gap between the image of the boyish, puppy-dog-eyed crooner and the reality of the hard-drinking, womanizing, if also oversensitive guy from Jersey who liked to hang out with wise guys. She must have brought this disconnect to his attention, whether as a loving wife trying to help her spouse through a rough patch in his career or as an angry lover lashing out hurtfully. (The latter is somehow more credible; this was the woman who said upon learning of his marriage to Mia Farrow, “I always knew that Frank would end up in bed with a boy.”)
I think it credits both Frank and Ava to see more than heartbreak at work here, but however it came about there’s no denying that Frank Before Ava and After are different animals. After 1953 the callow crooner is gone; the musical intelligence that had once mainly served the beauty of his voice—which he sometimes seemed to treat as a purely physical, almost athletic, gift rather than a means of communication—now served the songs. And he began to approach those songs not as mere material but as autobiography, bringing to them psychological depth, drama, and the ego to persuade us that he had lived them. If Nelson Riddle was right, then every torch song, every love song the mature Frank sang was really about Ava and for Ava—from the joyous celebration of helpless obsession “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to the bleak but beautiful “Everything Happens to Me.”
The latter is a good test case for Riddle’s theory. Sinatra recorded the Tom Adair–Matt Dennis song three times: He cut it in 1941 with the Tommy Dorsey band when it was brand new, singing it beautifully but really as just another song. His 1956 version was warm, light, philosophical, even hopeful. Sometime in the 1970s Sinatra had Adair write special, personalized lyrics to the song.† It is this version that Sinatra recorded in 1981 as if staring into the void. It was his last great recording, and if it had been included in that year’s She Shot Me Down instead of lesser material (I’m looking at you, Sonny Bono), then that album would have been the classic everyone wanted it to be. It was finally released in 1995 and gave the title to Sinatra’s self-selected 1996 anthology of his “songs of the soul.” It’s a fascinating, revealing choice for the final chapter of the man’s musical autobiography. If this is his final word on things, what did all the success, money, power, and love he accrued mean?
And if Nelson Riddle was right, then this song and all of the songs Frank sang for and about Ava must stand as one of the great romantic monuments.
*The papers weren’t signed until 1957, but the marriage—if not the relationship—was for all intents and purposes over by 1953.
†Sinatra sometimes updated the lyrics to “his” songs, often for comedic effect, often by house scribe Sammy Cahn. This is one of only two cases I am aware of where he went back to the original author of the song to personalize it; the other was, notably, another torch song, Ira Gershwin’s “I Can’t Get Started.”
A couple of Spotify samplers for Sinatra anniversary week.
The first recreates (almost) the singer’s last recording project, now out of print: Everything Happens to Me, a self-selected anthology of the songs that meant the most to him. No ring-a-ding-dings here; just the deepest ballads and most penetrating readings from his later years. In the liner notes Sinatra recalls an early voice teacher telling him, “You can’t sing what you don’t understand.” Frank continued, “I learned fast”— many normal lifetimes of experience are compressed into those three words—“and emotionally graduated to the songs of love, loss, joy, and despair, expertly conveyed by the best lyricists and songwriters in the world. These are the songs of the soul. These are my songs.”
I say “almost” because Spotify lacks the title song—about which more here.
The second playlist is what I imagine a second volume of the project would have contained. There will be quibbles: The finger snaps and “Jack”s Sinatra throws into “Something” are distracting, but if you can get past them you’ll hear the complete reinvention of a song you didn’t think could be reinvented and perhaps the most physically gorgeous arrangement of his career. David Gates is no Cole Porter, and “If” is one ripe piece of cheese, but damned if Frank doesn’t make it sound like Shakespeare.
I don’t know where Snoose Boulevard is or was—presumably somewhere in the vicinity of Dinkytown*—but this album caught my eye for a couple of reasons. I was curious about the woman the Minneapolis Tribune called “a one-woman cultural revival.” (A pretty good description to judge by Ms. Harvey’s cv.) And anyone raised on Yogi Yorgesson would likely be tempted by titles like “Chikago,” “Pelle’s Yankee Doodle,” and “Holy Yumpin’ Yiminy.” And then there was the six-point caption on the back cover: “The photograph of Anne-Charlotte on the front of the jacket shows, in the background, the paddlewheel of the University of Minnesota Centennial Showboat. This boat was used in the film THE EMIGRANTS, directed by Jan Troll.”† The extreme self-justification, along with the modest-to-the-point-of-plainness cover, are such typical Scandinavian responses to so revealing and public an act as recording and releasing a record.
But today, especially today, what has my ear is this sweet and simple rendition of “Tyggarre”—a song my sister remembers singing as a child to the residents of the Swedish old people’s home (as we used to call it) and making them cry.
* Future dissertation topic: the influence of Swedish-American balladry on Bob Dylan. Surely even in his brief stay in St. Paul, Dylan would have encountered some of these songs, and I want some enterprising PhD candidate to limn the influence of “Pelle’s Yankee Doodle” on “Bob Dylan’s Dream” or “Flickan på Bellmansro” on “The Girl from the North Country.”
† Ah, yes, The Emigrants. I remember being dragged as a ten-year-old boy to see the film one afternoon—an afternoon that seemed to last as long as a trip across the Atlantic on a small steamer. A right of cultural passage almost as taxing as folk dancing.
This is the one we waited for through a month of Sundays. This song, despite a rich indigenous tradition of Swedish hymnody, was the one we looked forward to. Partly it was because it was one of those rare songs for which all the stops on the organ were pulled out. Partly it was that it always seemed to fall on a spring Sunday following a searching and memorable sermon. Mostly it was because by the second verse the pastor had climbed down from the pulpit and began to bang out quite un-Scandinavian octaves on the grand piano. It rocked. In this way some of the rousing gospel spirit of the revival meeting survived into the Me Decade. Swimming in that ocean of sound, we wondered: who wouldn’t want to march to Zion?