- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2002

The last time he came through town, Beck was frolicking onstage like Prince, belting out funky ditties about "Hollywood freaks" and mixing "bizness with pleasure." When he shows up before a sold-out crowd at the Lincoln Theater on Sunday, it will just be him, an acoustic guitar and a small backing band.

Beck (aka Beck Hansen) is touring in advance of his new album, "Sea Change," which is a mellower, folk-heavy follow-up to 1999's party-heavy "Midnite Vultures." It's due out Sept. 24.

"[Midnite Vultures] was satire, a free-for-all funk-and-soul implosion," he says over the phone Tuesday as his tour bus heads to New York City. "The new record is just more personal. It's acoustic, clean."

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People used to the funky, hip-hop Beck of his 1996 Grammy-winning work "Odelay" and "Vultures" will be surprised to find him in a quieter, mellow mood this time around. If stripped of its electronic textures, the album even could be considered country in some parts.

"I wrote a bunch of country music songs," he says, "but my producer (Nigel Godrich) doesn't like country, so they come off like more ambient or psychedelic folk. About a third of this record was probably country. The rest was British folk."

He worked relatively quickly on the album, finishing the new material in about four weeks.

"We recorded most of the album live with the band in the studio," he says. "It's kind of odd for a current album, kind of rare these days.

"You can hear the rest of the band in my vocal mike," he adds.

The last time he recorded this way was on 1998's "Mutations," an often overlooked work that combines electro-folk songs with bossa nova beats.

"It was necessary in capturing the mood and capturing performance," he says of the live recording process. "I wanted to get something that was emotionally honest from all the musicians."

Although the album's title "Sea Change" might suggest this is a new direction for Beck, don't look too deeply into the title.

"I just like the image. It's a lyric in one of the songs," he says. "It just sounds vaguely poetic without being too pretentious I didn't want it to be clever."

Some of the new tunes fans are likely to hear include "The Golden Age," the album's lead-off track, which features light keyboards, a touch of slide guitar and Beck's constant acoustic strumming and weary delivery.

"Put your hands on the wheel/let the golden age begin," he sings, his voice echoing off into the distance, like a sound fragment shot off into space.

He almost sounds like a modern-day Nick Drake on "Lost Cause," a song that begins with a beautiful acoustic melody that soon disappears into the ether. On "Lonesome Tears," his voice is very slight, almost a mumble, as if the sadness were too overwhelming even to put into words.

"I think it works really well as a piece, just as a whole thing," he says. "I really deliberately made it cohesive to create an atmosphere that holds throughout without getting too boring."

The songs have been around for about two years he thinks he wrote most of them on the road but Beck says he wasn't able to schedule studio time with Mr. Godrich, who also produced "Mutations," until recently.

About the same time as "Sea Change," he also recorded another album's worth of material, rumored to be an upbeat antidote to his current mellow folk. He hopes to release that album in 2003.

"It's more energy, more rock," Beck says of the unreleased songs. "It's probably the next thing I'm moving into."

The Flaming Lips will join him on tour later this fall to play some of those new rock songs as well as hits that won't make his set lists on this tour.

Besides recording two albums' worth of songs, Beck also has been keeping busy in other areas.

He has been on records by Air, William Orbit and Marianne Faithfull and recently dueted onstage with Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke in support of musicians' rights. He also is one of the judges in the Shortlist Music Project, a program that honors albums for their creative achievements.

Some of his picks for this year include Sonic Youth's "Murray Street," Clinic's "Walking With Thee" and Gillian Welch's "Time (The Revelator)."

Fans can expect a rather different show on this current tour.

"I'm playing mostly songs that I don't get a chance to play," he says. "The 'Mutations' songs, some of my earlier records, and I'm doing a lot of covers."

At a recent show in Ann Arbor, Mich., Jack White, singer and guitarist for the White Stripes, joined him onstage for two duets. They played Beck's own "Cold Brains" before launching into a cover of bluesman Robert Johnson's "Last Fair Deal Gone Down."

"I'm improvising songs a lot," he says. "The set lists are constantly changing. If you saw every show on the tour, it would be different each night."

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