Jeff Beck – Emotion and Commotion

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Following his triumphant 2009 DVD Live at Ronnie Scott's, Jeff Beck released Emotion and Commotion a couple of months ago.  I've listened periodically, even patiently, to absorb what this CD is about.  And "about" is an odd thing to ask from a musical recording, unless it's a concept album of some sort.

Beck is unquestionably a master guitarist.  However, he's not a household name, despite being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, once as a member of The Yardbirds and again as a solo artist. 

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Beck never made mass appeal a specific pursuit.  After his 60’s blues reinventions, the 70's found him focusing mostly on jazz fusion, and later releases focused on harder hitting rock, showcasing his talents as a soloist but largely devoid of memorable riffs or melodies.  Still, after a lengthy career, the “best of” moments tend to accumulate, and these were expertly refashioned Jeff Beck - Emotion & Commotionfrom his typical arena bombast to the more intimate setting of a Ronnie Scott’s jazz club. 

Which brings us to Emotion and Commotion.  Usually, after a few spins, I can recall the more pointed aspects of a CD that I might comment upon.  Not here.  I had to take notes as I listened.

The first track, “Corpus Christi Carol,” is a graceful song set above a rather placid orchestration, and it emphasizes the subtlety of which Beck is capable in managing the guitar’s tone and shaping its notes.  And at the end, I’ve already arrived at my first conflict.  Yes, it’s beautiful for what it is, but does it warrant another listen? 

By sheer track placement, Beck seems to acknowledge the same unease by launching into “Hammerhead,” a scorcher that highlights Beck’s guitar licks.  Sadly, though, it’s built over a pedestrian (unimaginative, not defining the shape of the song, that kind of thing) riff and fails to connect at any level other than an appreciative “wow” for the guitar pyrotechnics.

“Never Alone” leans towards Beck’s jazz fusion days, tempered with sustained notes rather than any sort of improvisational or “in the moment” feel.  It’s a solid song, but not necessarily memorable.

Like his treatment of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” much has been said about Beck’s instrumental version of “Over the Rainbow,” showcased frequently at his live performances the last several years.  It’s an iconic song, and a beautiful one.  And it’s superbly interpreted.  And it’s a great listen.  Once.  Seriously, how many people are going to want to hear this over and over?  The kudos tend to come from people who watched the artist at his work, and the video is not on the CD.

Finally, at track five, we have a keeper.  And it’s not because I’m a puppet of conventional expectations.  Certainly, “I Put a Spell on You” (a song firmly “belonging” to Creedance Clearwater Revival, but actually written by Jay Hawkins) is as catchy as it is familiar, and I’m not giving it excess favor for being the first song on the CD featuring vocals.  That said, both the vocals and music get very soulful treatments from Joss Stone and Beck’s accompanying guitar.  Were this the Jeff Beck from the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart, there’s no doubt that Beck’s fills would overstep Stone’s vocal space and attempt to outshine her.  If there is anything to be said about a common denominator in the songs included here, it is that Beck has matured and learned to focus his expansive pallet appropriately to the task at hand.

“Serene” begins with an ode to the Allman Brothers or even Derek Trucks, but it inexplicably moves to a funky jazz groove that returns to its Southern Rock refrain.  In that Beck’s closing solo fades out, it seems he didn’t know exactly where to go with it either.

This is followed by “Lilac Wine,” another lazily orchestrated song that is nicely sung by Imelda May.  It’s most memorable in that once again Beck shows some restraint to fit the mood of the piece.  The problem is that the mood is a listless one that would benefit from some sort of emotional pulse.

Instead, we have to wait one more song for that, “Nessun Dorma.”  This classical (and again, orchestrated) song begins rather nebulously and builds to a climatic finish, though possibly an overstated one.  Still, it features some great guitar, and, although not likely to be at home in a generic iPod playlist, it’s the second song clearly worth revisiting.

In another swift change of pace, Joss Stone returns on vocals for a powerful “There’s No Other Me,” a song accented by guttural guitar phrases that finally allow Beck to show some attitude.   And this sets up the penultimate finish for the CD, “Elegy for Dunkirk.”  Well, wait a minute.  It’s actually quite a downer on an album that one might hope would finish on higher ground than a grave.

Okay, I’ve read some other reviews.  I rarely do this unless I’m seriously debating a purchase, but I spent way too much time coming to terms with this CD.  In general, the reviews tend towards “Jeff Beck’s most accessible work in years…”  This may be true, but it’s been 7 years since his last studio CD. 

In many ways, it is a natural follow-up to the “Ronnie Scott” release, which may have even helped Beck understand the manner in which his talents are best appreciated.  As a result, the change of pace found in Emotion and Commotion clearly shows that Beck’s mastery of guitar extends to multiple genres, and the songs give ample space for the nuances of his work to be heard.  Well and good.  For the listener, it’s a technical showcase that all the commotion is about, but it’s a surprisingly sterile experience when it comes to emotion.  If anything, the CD emphasizes that the quickness, control and dexterity of his finger work are better experienced when he can be watched as he is heard.

Which, as it happens, I will do tomorrow as he visits Atlanta.

Recommended Songs: “I Put A Spell on You,” “There’s No Other Me,” “Nessun Dorma.”

Rating: 2 Stars out of 5

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