On the Friday before spring break, I had the pleasure of seeing the Vanderbilt Core Choir perform their home concert that began their week long tour to Florida. The front end of the program was a typical classical repertoire, featuring works from Bach, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. Via short sets focusing on international pieces and original compositions by choir members and friends, there was a gradual transition into what I found to be an absolutely stunning performance of Americana songs at the tail end of the program. There was a complete change in atmosphere of the concert, and it was in no way related to the quality of the music going up for some strange reason. The performance level was stunning throughout; in the roots set, it was just like the music stopped being a performance and began to be a warm and welcoming conversation. It focused strongly on spirituals, arrangements of songs by The Wailin’ Jennys to highlight some of the ensemble’s remarkable sopranos and altos, and a selection for the male vocalists to shine on that happens to be one of my current favorite songs. This was an adapted arrangement of Marcus Mumford and Oscar Isaac’s recording of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” for the 2013 Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis (you can listen to a recording of the choir’s men performing the selection above). The film follows a week in the life of Llewyn Davis, a fictional folk artist in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s struggling to make it by, providing a dreary reminder to the audience that for every Bob Dylan or Joan Baez success that came from this vibrant folk movement there were countless careers that failed to start. Again and again in this dismal setting, the film’s music shines through, punctuated by performances from Oscar Isaac in his titular role. The man that put that soundtrack together was T-Bone Burnett.
“Can we start it all over again this morning?” Beck asks early on in the opening track of Morning Phase, his first album since 2008′s Modern Guilt. After a gorgeous 40 second instrumental opening, strings give way into the plaintive guitar strums of “Morning”, and it truly does feel like a something entirely new, a rebirth — which is odd, because Beck has specifically said this album is a spiritual successor to his 2002 masterpiece Sea Change.
And sure, the beginning of “Morning” has an uncanny resemblance to the beginning of Sea Change opener “The Golden Age.” And sure, all of Morning Phase is ostensibly similar to its much-vaunted predecessor. It does feature the same musicians and the same California-folk influence. And yeah, even the cover art (Exhibits 1 and 2) looks strikingly similar, Beck’s steady gaze staring out behind smears of orange and blue.
But hear me out: the truth is that it’s only similar in the sense that all music by an artist sounds similar to previous music produced by that artist. No left turn is truly a total departure: even the cold, Kraftwerk heartbeat of Kid A‘s “Idioteque” had its roots in the laserbeam percussion loop of OK Computer’s “Airbag”.
The point of all this is to get you to look at Morning Phase in the ways it differs, rather than its similarities, because these differences are what make Morning Phase the best Beck album since 1998′s Mutations.
Kurt Cobain, the famed frontman of Nirvana, grew up in Aberdeen Washington. In interviews, Cobain rarely mentioned the city, sometimes saying things like, “In Aberdeen, I hated my best friends with a passion, because they were idiots.” Later recounting his childhood, Cobain reflected on Aberdeen as “a depressed and dying logging town.”