Beck, one of the most consistently brilliant pop stars of his generation, teams with producer-of-the-moment Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley). Sparks the size of mushroom clouds oughta fly, right? Then again, rock history is littered with less than spectacular super-groupings and pairings: Velvet Revolver, Audioslave, 90 percent of Willie Nelson's duets. So it really shouldn't surprise that Beck's new disc Modern Guilt fails to dazzle.
Main problem? Beck sounds bored. His vocals are delivered with all the passion and conviction of an office drone forced to give an impromptu speech at his evil boss' birthday party. All 10 tracks suggest we're dealing with a tortured artist gripped by depression and paranoia. But while, say, Thom Yorke makes you truly believe he's lost complete faith and trust in humanity, Beck's fatalistic outlook ultimately sounds forced. Worse, Beck the lyricist has gone from a writer of glorious gibberish to emo droppings like "I'm tired of people who only want to be pleased/ But I still want to please you."
Sonically, the album relies far too heavily on gauzy washes that linger like waiting-room music. There's a hook here and there, but nothing truly innovative, nothing that registers below the neck. Has Danger Mouse blown his wad? 2.5 stars —Wade Tatangelo
Como Te Llama?
ALBERT HAMMOND JR.
Whereas The Strokes seem perpetually tied up in a stylistic straightjacket of pomo-garage-pop, their rhythm guitarist, Albert Hammond, Jr., flexes a considerably wider range on his second solo outing. His fondness for '60s/early-'70s pop-rock touchstones is apparent, but he also delivers moments that sound more akin to British dream-pop, reggae-style Clash and even a bit of stripped-down funk. Although Hammond tends to obscure his less-than-stellar vocal chops with effects, his knack for writing hooks manages to shine through. The disc's X-factor is his mélange of beguiling guitar textures — the atmospheric instrumental "Spooky Couch" is unabashedly pretty, while elsewhere his playing ranges from savage to soulful. 3.5 stars —Eric Snider
(Back Porch/Manhattan )
Americana cult hero and rock 'n' roll survivor Alejandro Escovedo drops his most listener-friendly album — maybe ever. Along with co-writer Chuck Prophet, he has crafted 13 melodically engaging tunes with a nakedly autobiographical bent, with lyrics that look back (fondly, for the most part) to his days with The Nuns, Rank and File, True Believers, Buick MacKane and his solo career. Escovedo employs his usual amalgam of influences — punk, country, blues, glam, Dylan-esque ballads, even girl-group pop — but integrates them more skillfully than on recent outings. Real Animal rocks forthrightly and, while clearly nostalgic, also suggests something of a new beginning. 3.5 stars —ES
Posthumous records are always a bummer, especially when they're as fun and poignant as the latest from the Hacienda Brothers. Lead singer/multi-instrumentalist Chris Gaffney died in April, so this is it — or should be it — for one of the best-kept secrets in alt-country. Arizona Motel is a spot-on synthesis of classic country and vintage soul marked by Gaffney's gruff-yet-sweet vocals, which are at their most gripping on "Break Free," the Dan Penn-written album closer. 3.5 stars —WT
Maths + English
On his third studio album, U.K. grime-time player Dizzee Rascal enlists Lily Allen ("Wanna Be") and Arctic Monkey Alex Turner ("Temptation") for a mash-up of breakbeat, hip-hop and garage. Rascal, aka Dylan Mills, turns his East London lingo toward the ambient synth sweep of "World Outside" before launching "Sirens," a rapid-fire sonic riot of electric guitars and aggro chants. The inspired dub-crunk hybrid "Where's Da G's" (featuring stateside rappers UGK) takes matters to the dancehall. On Maths + English, Dizzee Rascal showcases a new maturity — lyric- and production-wise — in these tales of British city life. 3.5 stars —Amanda Schurr