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Critic's pick: Jeff Beck, 'Emotion & Commotion'

critic's pick

Jeff Beck

Emotion & Commotion

One of the many telling moments on Emotion & Commotion, the first studio album by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and all-around guitar great Jeff Beck, comes during a segue between its first two songs. As a graceful cover of Jeff Buckley's Corpus Christi Carol fades out in a distant wave with a lone guitar slowly becoming enveloped by keyboards and strings, another voice enters. It's crankier but more playful. The guitar groove comes wrapped in vintage Jimi Hendrix wah-wah glory and bounces about with almost childlike glee. In short, you just know this sucker is going to explode. And, sure enough, it does, but with a wholly unexpected orchestral flourish. The tune, penned by Beck and his current keyboardist, Jason Rebello, is Hammerhead.

All of this sets up a wonderful sampler of styles and sounds from the 65-year-old Beck that, as always, keeps listeners guessing. Gone is the industrial-tinged electronica of albums like Who Else! (1999) and You Had It Coming (2001). The menu of Emotion & Commotion approximates more the mash-up summoned on Jeff (2003). But even that's misleading. The new record eases the tension a bit and gives heavy focus to traditionally based lyricism, which is displayed liberally on a surprisingly fresh guitar and orchestra revision of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Yet nothing here is static. The flip side of Rainbow is Never Alone, a Rebello composition that offers the warmest chimelike guitar tone Beck has committed to a record in decades — maybe ever.

And for those about to rock, as AC/DC says, Beck salutes them, too. There's No Other Me, one of two songs featuring psychedelic soul revivalist Joss Stone, borders on the unforgiving. At the midway point, Stone howls with typical '60s-style ceremony. But then Beck revs up and spits out a guitar break that rolls over her voice like a monster truck. The tune was probably not designed as a cutting contest, but it sure comes across as one, with Beck the lone victor.

Two lesser established sirens steal even more of Stone's thunder. Irish vocalist Imelda May gives a suitably torchy touch to another Buckley gem, Lilac Wine, while a young singer equally versed in opera and electronica, Olivia Safe, adds subtle, wordless drama to Serene and the album-closing orchestral requiem, Elegy for Dunkirk.

There are a few quibbles here and there. The orchestrations get a bit soupy at times, especially on the Hollywood-ized Nessun Dorma. And then there's the ceaselessly strident Stone, who is outclassed and out-sassed by almost everyone here. Those are minor bumps along the road, though, for a guitar ace still full of musical emotion, commotion and devotion.

Walter Tunis, Contributing Music Critic