Jeff Beck: Emotion & Commotion

John Kelman By

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Jeff Beck
Emotion & Commotion
Atco Records

Of the three artists who emerged as "guitar gods" on the British rock scene of the 1960s—all three coming up through the same group, The Yardbirds—Jeff Beck is, more than perennial favorites Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, the one who has taken the most risks throughout his career. They don't always work, either; on the other hand, his performance at the Ronnie Lane ARMS concert in 1983 may have been less than a resounding success, but the guitarist deserved major props for going out there and going for it, as opposed to Clapton's classy but safe set and Page's embarrassing attempt to turn "Stairway to Heaven" into an instrumental. All the more reason, then, for the long overdue critical and popular acclaim for Performing This Week...Live at Ronnie Scott's (Eagle Records, 2008) and Beck's ensuing, sold-out 2009 world tour. And all the more reason, too, to celebrate Emotion & Commotion, his first studio record in seven years.

More than most—and certainly more than Clapton and Page—Beck's distinctly un-guitar god-like and melodic, non-poser approach to guitar has sung out with all the wrenched emotion and nuanced inflection of the human voice, and he's never been as truly human as he is on Emotion & Commotion. It may disappoint those who prefer a harder-edged Beck but in this combination of arrangements for orchestra and guitar, cinematic originals and reinvented classics, Beck has never sounded more exposed, more fragile. He may not demonstrate the guitar pyrotechnics of his peers, but the long evolution of his distinctive tone and allegiance to the strength of melody—dating as far back as 1975's Blow By Blow (Epic, 1975) and the enduring "'Cause We've Ended As Lovers" and, even earlier, on his surprising version of "Morning Dew" with Rod Stewart from his 1968 debut,Truth (Epic)—has, in many ways, been leading to this very point.

Interspersed with group tracks that, amongst others, feature his touring band of the past couple of years alongside guest vocalists like Joss Stone and Imelda May, are four strictly orchestrated tracks, representing some of Beck's most painfully beautiful playing to date. Ranging from the tender traditional opener, "Corpus Christi Carol," and Puccini's poignant "Nessun Dorm," to music from two films—The Wizard of Oz's iconic "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and the more recent Atonement's "Elegy for Dunkirk," where Beck's guitar intertwines so seamlessly with Olivia Safe's soaring operatic vocal as to join the two together as one voice—Beck manages to find the true core of the music and of his own playing, delivered with spare elegance and unparalleled emotion.

The more electrified tracks are no less powerful. Beck seems to have found a foil, in keyboardist Jason Rebello, to transcend his late-1980s/early-1990s work with Tony Hymas. "Hammerhead" has all the edge Beck's rockier fans love—the gritty wah-wah, searing wammy bar and ring modulated distortions—but with a riff-driven, orchestrated backbone that recalls Beck's groundbreaking, spontaneous work with producer George Martin on Blow By Blow. Like "Hammerhead," the funkier chill-out of "Serene" is co-written by Beck and Rebello, and combines the guitarist's matchlessly tasteful tone with the keyboardist's more sophisticated harmonies.

The tracks featuring May and Stone are equally compelling. Stone, in particular, brings a contemporary kind of sultry to "I Put a Spell on You," while May turns the James Shelton's 1950 ballad "Lilac Wine" into an equally modern torch song, with Pete Murray's orchestrations—as throughout the disc—strong without ever becoming saccharine.

After the more rock-centric Performing This Week..., Emotion & Commotion presents a very specific side to Beck that's been there all along but, with this wonderfully chosen set of material, has never been heard in such sharp focus. For a guitarist who came up through the British scene of the 1960s, Beck has matured into a player whose voice is assured and utterly without parallel. The aptly titled Emotion & Commotion may not possess any overt guitar pyrotechnics, but its deep beauty and profoundly vocal lyricism simply could not have come from anyone but Jeff Beck. A modern classic.

Tracks: Corpus Christi Carol; Hammerhead; Never Alone; Somewhere Over the Rainbow; I Put a Spell on You; Serene; Lilac Wine; Nessun Dorma; There's No Other Me; Elegy for Dunkirk.

Personnel: Jeff Beck: guitar; Pete Murray: keyboards (1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10), orchestral arrangement (1-8, 10); Alessia Mattalia: drums (2); Tal Wilkenfeld: bass (2, 3, 6, 9); Jason Rebello: keyboards (2, 3, 6, 9), programming (6, 9); Vinnie Coilaiuta: drums (3, 6, 9); Luis Jardim: percussion (3, 6); Steve Lipson: programming (3, 6, 9); Steve Sidwell: conductor (4, 5); Clive Deamer: drums (5); Pino Palladino: bass (5); Joss Stone: vocals (5, 9); Olivia Safe: vocals (6, 10); Imelda May: vocals (7); Earl Harvin: drums (7); Chris Bruce: bass (7).

Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Atco | Style: Beyond Jazz

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