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New CDs: Beck, Kerli and Greg Laswell
Beck "Modern Guilt" (DGC Records)
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There are many probable reasons Beck made "Modern Guilt," his concise yet deliberately cosmic collaboration with fellow shaggy pop auteur Danger Mouse. He's finishing up a long contract with his record label; he has two small kids and doesn't want to kill himself with a long, eclectic project; he's 38 and can't break dance anymore.
But let's consider an artistic one: He and the producer also known as Brian Burton share a predilection for a particular kind of sci-fi. This is their soundtrack to a film not yet made -- or maybe, accidentally to one that does exist and already has primed summer popcorn-munchers for Beck's latest explorations of modern consciousness.
"Modern Guilt" is “Wall-E” for anyone who prefers rock 'n' roll to kids' movies. That adorable dinged-up robot lives in the same eternal twilight that Beck and Danger Mouse evoke in their 30-minute drift through space.
"Wall-E" has its own excellent soundtrack by Thomas Newman, which uses the gently prophetic voice of Peter Gabriel and those uncanny snippets from "Hello, Dolly!" But someone (maybe Danger Mouse) should make a mash-up of the film's quiet opening scenes and this equally sad, equally mystical album.
Like "Wall-E," "Modern Guilt" embraces the gentle dystopianism of films like "Silent Running" and "Solaris" and of music like "Here Comes the Flood," Gabriel's 1977 love song to the apocalypse.
At its most upbeat, on the Kinks-esque title track and the twangy "Gamma Ray" -- a sexy little number about electromagnetic radiation -- Beck welcomes his own obsolescence backed by tarnished vintage beats.
More often, the mood is calm but chemically altered: psychedelia for a pharmaceutical age. "Orphans," the opening track, has a backing vocal from indie chanteuse Cat Power that drifts in and out like a buried personality state.
In "Chemtrails," the song I'd love to hear during Wall-E's anti-gravitational love scene with Plasticine cutie Eve, Beck's falsetto retreats deeply into the mix, merging with Danger Mouse's analog synths. (Joey Waronker's drumming plays evil robot, spazzing out at the end.)
Beck, Danger Mouse and Wall-E are all scavengers, crafting beautiful environments from the discards of modern life. The difference between the musicians and the Pixar creation is that Wall-E, inspired by love, pushes on toward a better future. "Modern Guilt" dwells in the darkness of lost hope. The world it portrays, whether it's meant to be a damaged psychic landscape or an Earth trashed by uncaring humans, has its beautiful side, but there's not a lot of positive energy there.
Given the current state of the economy, the weather and the world in general, there's a fair debate to be had over whether Beck's meandering anomie is more realistic than the happy ending of "Wall-E's" re-seeded Earth.
Debut is full of contradictions
Kerli "Love Is Dead" (Island Records)
Although it's titled "Love Is Dead," Estonian vocalist Kerli's debut album is filled with songs that have a surprisingly positive outlook. But that's just one of the contradictions from a singer whose cover art makes her look like a Goth Bratz doll dropped into a Tim Burton animated feature.
She's been compared to Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette and Björk, but Estonian vocalist Kerli is none of those chanteuses -- yet somehow all of them. Although her songs occasionally feature the alto piano of Apple or the otherworldly trilling of Morissette or Björk, her voice can sound thin and inconsistent, giving the whole thing a somewhat derivative feel.
But for a girl who says she "grew up without music" in a former Soviet state, "Love Is Dead" has a few standout tracks, such as "Butterfly Cry" and "Bulletproof," that speak to the consequences of a broken heart.
The first single, "Walking on Air," has an appealing tinkly melody, and it showcases Kerli's voice at its best. Yet it speaks again to her incongruity: "A little creepy girl, oh, she loves to sing. She has a little gift, an amazing thing." Frankly, a little more creepiness would give Kerli the edge that her appearance advertises.
Heavy songs with power to uplift
Greg Laswell "Three Flights From Alto Nido" (Vanguard)
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"I think I like how the day sounds through this new song," sings Greg Laswell on his third studio album. He should: This well-connected San Diego-based folk-pop guy, a beneficiary of Hollywood's current infatuation with earnest young singer-songwriters, has a knack for musical transformation. He feeds depression and dejection into his tune-making mill and out come melodic marvels that lift the spirit despite their heavy subject matter.
Like the numerous TV shows his songs have soundtracked, Laswell is a beautifier of the real -- not a bad job at a moment when reality shows no sign of prettying up itself.
You can hear Laswell's influences loud and clear throughout "Three Flights From Alto Nido." With its lopsided rhythmic shuffle and minor-key guitar strums, "Days Go On" could be an unplugged outtake from Radiohead's recent "In Rainbows," while Elliott Smith-style harmonies give "Comes and Goes (In Waves)" an ethereal wee-hours glow. (Other tracks recall -- and should appeal to fans of -- Coldplay, Nick Drake and Death Cab for Cutie.)
Yet Laswell, who plays a record-release show Friday at the Hotel Cafe, channels all those borrowed sounds into a satisfying whole. He leaves these 42 minutes more welcoming than he found them.