Look, we love Beck, the cheesy falsetto-voiced balladeer and lovemaker. And we love Beck, the mature, contemplative singer-songwriter. But the Beck we really love is the goofy, eccentric electro-pop-funk ringleader; the guy who waxes stoned immaculate and does the whitebread James Brown freakout over clever beats, rootsy guitar and bass lines so tasty they can't possibly be good for us. Those who feared that favorite Beck was being phased out on Midnite Vultures - fears that seemed justified with the arrival of the infinitely folkier Sea Change - will find much to rejoice about, and dance to, in Guero's opening quarter: Lead single "E-Pro," the block party-rocking "Que Onda Guero," and the immaculately infectious "Girl" aren't just a return to Dust Brothers-assisted form, but an improvement on it.

From there, however, the lanky man with the indoor tan moves on to a new groove, or at least a new recombination of elements, one that splits the difference between his manic energy and more introspective musings. More than anything, the remainder of Guero comes off as a "daylight" record, a collection of smart, melodious, lazily rhythmic tracks largely suited more to sunny afternoons than late-night dancing.

After "Missing" takes things way down with a plaintive vocal and cheesy mall-organ rhumba, the throbbing "Black Tambourine" brings the energy back up. But it doesn't stay there. "Earthquake Weather," a highlight, marries sexy funk to a marvelous AM-gold chorus; "Hell Yes" revisits Odelay's cracked beats and stream-of-cleverness lip service; "Scarecrow" marries a Prince beat to upbeat roots-rock; "Farewell Ride" slides by mournfully on dobro and slave-song percussion.

Despite the immediately familiar vibe of its first three cuts, Guero is unmistakably another new aural identity from Beck's apparently endless stockpile of them, more exciting than Beck as Dylan, more low-key than Beck as ironic R&B showman. And no, our favorite, effervescent, love-at-first-listen Beck doesn't dominate. But repeated listens to Guero tease up ever more things to like about it, and the encouraging idea that as he grows, maybe we can grow with him.

-Scott Harrell

A Healthy Distrust
In hip-hop, as in all popular music, it can often be difficult to discern what the driving element is: form or content. Not that the two can ever be so easily separated, but the struggle between these sides is illustrative. An MC like Jay-Z, while not terribly concerned with making every turn of phrase meaningful, can nevertheless float by on a track with just the absurd coolness of his flow. From the opposite camp is Sage Francis, who obviously invests serious time in the construction of his rhymes, but also has a tendency to deliver them with little charm. There is much to criticize on both sides: attractive delivery can often obscure the meaningless (e.g. Snoop Dogg) and the downright repugnant (e.g. 50 Cent), while artfully composed lyrics can unfairly elevate mundane form. For an example of the latter, take "The Buzz Kill," the first song on Francis' recent CD, A Healthy Distrust. The beat is not particularly compelling and there's no chorus to speak of, so what we are left with is the quality of Francis' verses alone. Some are simply terrific: "Radio suckers never play this/ Scared shitless of dismissing Clear Channel playlists/ Poorly developed, yet highly advanced/ Black music intertwined with a white man's line dance." But while Chuck D would have boomed that shit like a bullhorn, Francis settles for that self-conscious "seething" tone Eminem uses on his angrier tracks. The weaknesses of Francis' music are more clearly exposed with a lame line like: "I freedom kiss the French for their political dissent." While Francis has carefully built this lyric, it comes off as clumsy, and in another rapper's hands, might be forgotten if it was dropped with the requisite coolness. But here, where lyrics are all that matter, you better make every line immaculate.

-Cooper Lane Baker

Former Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown is unafraid of at least two things: his ego and mariachi bands. That's clearly evident via the vibe heard throughout Solarized, his fourth solo release. Mixed in with his forceful, Brit-pop-defined vocals are splashes of horns reminiscent of Spaghetti Western films, the likes of which you'd be hard-pressed to find on an Oasis album (although Noel Gallagher does make a guest appearance, playing keys, guitars and vocals). As for the ego - which Brown flaunts shamelessly - this is a central part of his shtick. Solarized boasts the artist's name 25 times within the pages of the CD cover insert, though you don't need to see it to know that this is Brown's show alone. Judging by the head-up-ass lyrics on tracks like "Time is My Everything" and "Destiny or Circumstance," Brown almost makes the listener feel sorry for his arrogance. But then, what does it really matter? The rhythms, often looped drum machine beats, are fresh and driven enough to remind you that, yes, Brown is in control, and he's still got the fire that was in him when the Stone Roses were at their early '90s prime. 1/2

-Mark Sanders

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