Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

By Jeff Stark

Published November 11, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Beck might be rock's last great populist, the guy who rides critical praise to platinum sales, who pleases both 5 o'clock radio commuters and trivia gremlins who program college stations. An almost unheard of arrangement with his label, Geffen, permits him to release records on indie labels in between major projects, which, in turn, has allowed him to create a parallel career: One produces smartly textured, radio-readyhits; the other lets him play bald folk and fuck around with guys like Halo Bender Calvin Johnson.

Just as the hip-hop popmart known as "Odelay" built upon the bombastic "Mellow Gold," "Mutations" -- which was originally a Bongload Records project before it was plucked by Geffen -- rides the rails sledgehammered by the crude blues of his K Records release "One Foot in the Grave."But if "Grave" reveled in rawness, the 11-track "Mutations" echoes the beauty of those songs. "Nobody's Fault But My Own," recorded with his touring band and his father on viola, conjures sepia images --rusty blades, chain gangs and open graves -- but the delicate Indian instrumentation and the pained lament of the chorus make it the prettiest song he's ever written.

That said, "Mutations" is another record where the listener tunes in as Beck "turns shit into gold," as he puts it on the record. Constantly churning through forgotten and certified dead pop movements, the folkie alchemist uses "Mutations" to resuscitate late '60s Brazilian jazz ("Tropicalia"), hayseed country ("Canceled Check") and orchestral easy listening ("We Live Again"). The most impressive part of the record --and what gives Beck his genius -- is how the songs feel referential without sounding like clichis.

Like so much of Beck's writing, the "Mutations" lyrics are successful as clever strings of word poetry: They're as much about the pure sound of the syllables as the associative moods they conjure. Sure, only a theory slut could find a message in "Egos drone and pose alone/Like black balloons, all banged and blown" if he read it on the page. But say it aloud -- go ahead -- or listen to Beck slur it in a bluesy drawl, and there's at least temporary meaning.

And that's enough: Even if these songs end up filed in the vault of some pretentious radio station or as mere blips on a Top 40 chart -- both of which are unlikely -- at least he still believes thatpop music should be popular.

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-->BY MICHAEL E. ROSS | Sealhenry Samuel has always worn the scars of this world more forthrightly than other musicians. In a few albums over seven years, he's borrowed from an amalgam of musical styles -- primarily folk, rock and soul -- with a philosophy grounded in the melancholy of moderntimes, the losses of our lives, the hope of redemption and the need for carrying on in the face of adversity. With his new album, "Human Being," his first in four years, this pilgrim's progress continues in much the same elegant, winning style that's characterized his earlier work. But there's a disquietingly downbeat worldview at work here. On his latest song cycle of the human conundrum, the world makes him wanna holler and throw up both his hands. The first single, "Human Beings," takes its cues from the slayings of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. Onother songs, such as "State of Grace" and "Lost My Faith," Seal's admitting his own inner turmoil and confusion, in searing melodies that make fine use of the chameleon instrument of his voice. "No Easy Way" and "When a Man Is Wrong" ruefully explore the slippery slope of personal relationships. It's all done with the lapidary production values that have been a hallmark of his sound. Clearly, the man's still searching. That his way to confession largely resists the mawkish or the saccharine is testament to a formidable lyrical intelligence and a true musical sophistication. For anyone weary of the limited emotional range of much of contemporary music -- a span whose complexity hasn't really ventured far beyond June-moon-croon -- Seal's latest will be abracing tonic, one that seductively addresses the Big Issues. Go ahead.Listen. Squirm.

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Alanis Morissette

BY JEFF STARK | On 1995's "Jagged Little Pill," Alanis Morissette misinterpretedirony, pronounced herself Miss Thing and confessed to blowing a boy in atheater. Now a wizened 24-year-old on "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie," she apologizes for abusing her so-called power, flirts with spirituality and returns to the theater to see a lover -- but this time Morissette's sitting in the front row, eating popcorn.

Say hello to the new Alanis. After selling 15 million copies of"Jagged Little Pill" to embittered teenage girls and people who usually don't buy albums, the woman to blame for Fiona Apple and that chick who sang the "Bitch" song has mellowed from an angst-filled demoiselle into a more reserved -- if occasionally confused and nostalgic --woman. Although she is noticeably tamer, the shift is far less dramatic than the metamorphosis that took her from Nickelodeon childactor to Canadian Debbie Gibson to multiplatinum optimist with one hand in her pocket.

Musically, Morissette's "Junkie" songs sound like radio, or more precisely, MTV. Most of the tunes are broadcast-friendly, mid-tempoballads. There are faux-folkie Jewel moments ("That I Would Be Good"), scraps of Sneaker Pimps trip-hop lite ("I Was Hoping") and trendyquasi-spiritual loops ("Thank U"). Contrary to the pronouncements of some critics, Morissette and her songwriting partner Glen Ballard are not idiots -- bland, safe and predictable maybe, but definitely not idiots. After that business in Canada, Morissette's not about to give upon the formula (a thick gloss of Liz Phair, PJ Harvey and PattiSmith-style sexual frankness with a bump of grooveability ` la Blondieand Madonna) that gave her singles a mortal lock on the pop charts. No, Alanis Morissette's bread and butter is still the subject she knows best: Alanis Morissette.

With an astonishing disregard for rhyme or meter, she crams and stretches syllables into a tableaux of 17 self-absorbed songs about herself ("UR"), her minor manias ("One") and her relationships ("Unsent"). Morissette's trick is to take her journal entries and give them something approaching a suburban universality, full of fake IDs, emotional affairs and a post-break-up fuck, just for the hell of it. Her appeal is similar to the occasional charm of open-mike poets: They might be grating, but listeners are more likely to sympathize if they have bad poems in their own notebooks.

Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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