Saturday, February 27, 2010

Jeff Beck - Truth

Jeff Beck isn't your typical guitar god. I've been digging into classic rock for years now, and though his name pops up again and again it's taken me a while to finally arrive at an album with his name on it. The album in question, Truth, was his commercial breakthrough and is part of a tide of albums that took rock's love affair with the blues and turned up the sonic attack, leading the charge in the evolution towards heavy metal. Other albums in that group? Oh, just the early work of Led Zeppelin and Cream. You know... albums that are generally much higher on the Classic Rock journey hitlist.

I imagine Beck has remained more of an enigma because he is a natural sideman. He doesn't sing lead on Truth, that would be Rod Stewart. Beck, therefore, is like a classic rock version of a jazz musician. His name is on the album, but he's more than willing to run his band like a quartet. On an album of rock songs, not instrumentals (there are only two here), how often is the guitarist the spotlight? Not often. This leads to this sense of supremely qualified anonymity around Beck. Oh, one more bit about the band: the bassist on the album is Ronnie Wood, who later joined Stewart in his band Faces before joining a band called the Rolling Stones in the '70s. There's some serious talent here. I should have heard this album sooner.

While Stewart sings over some heavy blues-rock riffs, Beck steps in often with tasteful power. He is a perfect compliment for Stewart; there aren't lulls in the music between lyrics. Songs like "Let Me Love You" and "Morning Dew" have an unending propulsion in the back-and-forth between Stewart's rasping voice and Beck's wailing guitar. The pulse slows for Willie Dixon's "You Shook Me", a blues cover recorded a year before Led Zeppelin put their cover on their debut album (and instigated a feud between Beck and his ex-Yardbirds mate Jimmy Page, who incidentally appears later on the album.) Beck's cover is brief, though, a quick burst of fiery down-tempo blues where Led Zeppelin lets the song boil over six minutes in length.

The next song takes Truth far from the proto-heavy metal rock and turns headlong straight into the Beck-as-jazz-ringleader metaphor. The band transforms the Kern/Hammerstein standard "Ol' Man River" into a simmering blues dirge. Stewart gives a heartfelt rock vocal on par with Janis Joplin's more famous cover of Gershwin's "Summertime" while Wood's bass plumbs the depth of the famous showtune's melody over epic tumbling timpani courtesy of The Who's Keith Moon. It's a stunner of a cover, and easily feels like the classic rock version of jazz's tradition of reinterpreting classic standards.

Following the covers train, Beck turns the clock back even further to traditional folk songs with a delicate acoustic "Greensleeves." Then, after an original blues track, turns to classical reinterpretation with "Beck's Bolero." This single was recorded before the rest of the album proper, and features an entirely different all-star classic rock lineup. Keith Moon returns to bang out the bolero rhythm with increasing intensity while Beck trades guitar licks with Jimmy Page as dual lead guitars (again, recorded before their feud.) The track builds quickly into a fuzz-laden freakout, and I suppose what it lacks in musicality it makes up for influence. "Beck's Bolero" gets credit from many sources for being a defining development in both heavy metal and progressive rock, so my misgivings aren't without respect. It's a bit of a flatly-recorded mess, but who am I to argue with its status as groundbreaker?

After a lengthy excursion with straight blues in "Blues Deluxe", Beck ends with another Willie Dixon cover, "I Ain't Superstitious." This was the one track from Truth I'd heard prior to the rest of the album (it was one of Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitar Songs) and it's a rollicking good time. It's also the one vocal number where Beck actually overtakes Stewart's singing consistently; the words just provide the form over which Beck's guitar whelps and whines all over the song.

The 2006 re-issue has six bonus tracks, featured in the Lala widget but which I won't touch here. At it's core, Truth is a worthy entry in the classic rock canon. If it isn't as ensconced in my mind like Led Zeppelin's debut, well I'm giving it time. It's a late entry, but every bit as worthy.


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