Thursday, February 15, 2007

Jeff Beck - 'Blow By Blow'

Rating: 9/A

This album's a real grower, but you've got to have an intrinsic interest in virtuoso guitar soloing and a liking or at least tolerance for groove-based fusion and cheesy synth sounds to really get into it.

Having got those caveats out of the way, I have to say that I really love this album. It's Jeff Beck's first all-instrumental venture (with one or two very minor qualifications), and it pretty much set the pace for the rest of his career. Given some of the triter blues-rock material ventured by the second Jeff Beck Group or the Beck/Bogert/Appice combo, the instrumental route is probably the best fit for Beck. He's not that great a songwriter, and doesn't seem to retain collaborators long enough to build solid songwriting partnerships, but he is a very, very good guitarist and a true musician, more so than a handy provider of riffs-and-solos for a hitmaking rock combo. He's just too independant for that role. Also, as far as I know, this is one of the earliest all-instrumental albums to issued by a rock artist aside from those Shadows albums, and it certainly blazed a trail that several guitar heroes of varying degrees of actual interest have followed.

For a soloist-orented intrumental album to succeed and be more than wankery, at least one of several factors have to be present - compositional strength, musical originality and a solid backing team. All of that present here, or carefully compensated for. Never the most prolific composer, Beck does contribute a fair share to the group compositions here, puts down one solely-composed track and offers well chosen covers of The Beatles and Stevie Wonder to fill things out. The music's certainly pioneering enough in its own way - one of the earliest fusion records to be essayed from the rock side of the tracks, and one in which there are serious doses of funk and a touch of disco in addition to the jammy, free-form jazz influence. Actually, I think of this album as nearly being all-out funk, because funk is just jazz played much faster and more excitedly, with more emphasis on groove. Check, check, check and check. From that perspective the backing band is a mixed bag. The drummer Richard Bailey is a mighty solid groover, and keyboardist Max Middleton holds down the structures and backing tracks for Beck to perform his explorations over, even if his keyboard patches can sound a little dated and tinny at times. His solo breaks are always tasteful and deft as well, without stealing the limelight. Bassist Phil Chenn isn't bad at all, but I think he lets the side down a bit by playing a purely supportive and restrained role. Still, no one listens to albums by guitar legends to critique their bassists' skills, so enough of that. The rhythm section succeeds in laying down some pretty sleek grooves which give Beck enough rhythm to ride on, but also enough space to fly in to essay what appears to be an awkward phrasing, and that's what counts.

Beck's reggaefied cover of The Beatles' 'She's A Woman' gives him the chance to play some soulful, sometimes blues-tinged lines. It's also got a small talk box interlude with someone mouthing the main lyrics to the song, hence the not-entirely-instrumental tag. It's a novelty moment to be sure, but the playing on the song is strong enough to make it only minorly amusing. Stevie Wonder's 'Cause We've Ended as Lovers' gives Beck another chance to smoulder in ballad mode. I love the phrasing on this song - Beck does convey that ballady melody well enough, but he always eschews the cheesy power-ballad tricks, making note choices and phrasing decisions that elevate the tune to a completely different level from the populist lighters-out statement it could have been in a lesser musician's hands. His self-composition 'Constipated Duck' takes a syncopated and oddly gawky groove/riff and lays great flaming gouts of guitar glory all over it. 'You Know What I Mean' is another great funky, nearly disco, workout. 'Freeway Jam' taps into Beck's bluesy roots, and the album closer, an epic jam called 'Diamond Dust' even lets producer George '5th Moptop' Martin flex his orchestral muscle a bit, which he also does on the multilayered fusion workout, 'Scatterbrain'.

Some of the jams don't have a really distinctive hook, but there's always something intriguing and cool happening, either a really good groove, some tight ensemble playing or - most important - some breathtaking fretwork by Beck. Beck really delivers the goods here, playing fast, slow, bluesy, jazzy, tender, ferocious, excited, laid-back and whatnot, displaying the level of proficiency and inventiveness on his instrument of choice that shows you why that annoying phrase 'guitar hero' was actually invented.

The Eiderdown-Stuffing Bottomline: Funky, jazzy, groovy guitariffic glory. The accent is on grooviness, but the slower bits are great too, and the reggaefication of The Beatles adds to the sense of variety. Even the more generic jams are illuminated by the presence of Jeff Beck playing at the peak of his powers. Good groovin', good playin' - who needs Rod Stewart?


Murphy said...

*dances around*

100hands said...

I think a review of "Nevermind" or "In Utero" is well in order.

JP said...

They're in the queue.